Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Random thoughts on family ties to JPL in the 1960's

In the 1960’s my father was employed by JPL, otherwise known as the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California as an engineer. A native Californian, he graduated from Pasadena City College where he met my mother, then from UCLA as salutatorian of his class. She was quite young when they first met, graduating from high school at 16 and enrolling in college at 17. They married on June 3 1961 when she was 19, and I was born the following year.

He was a good father, always paying me attention albeit his busy work schedule. When I was 6 years old I remember him bringing something home from work. Three tiered and separated by spacers, this box-like thingy was about 18 inches wide and 12 deep, had all sorts of toggles and switches on the top level followed by wires and circuit boards on the bottom two. It seemed quite fancy at the time (very archaic now), and I was fascinated by all its bells and whistles. My first thoughts were how did it work, and what was it for?

odd electronic circuitry, drawn from memory

He left the room and came back with two screwdrivers, a Phillips and a flathead. Laying them down next to the strange device, he told me to take it apart and put it back together again to see if I could get it to work. I thought what a strange thing to ask of a 6 year old. How on earth was I going to complete such an odd request? Left alone in the room, I did as I was told.

And it worked.

As proud as I was of myself, I got no reaction from my father. He just looked at me, picked up the circuit board thing and walked away. All that for nothing, and it was just odd.

I have always been mechanically inclined, and I wonder if it had to do with his prompting of such tasks. As a mother myself and looking back on this I find it quite strange for a parent to ask such a young child (especially a girl) to take on something this complicated as I would never have imagined my own daughters completing such a thing at that age. Obviously my father’s brain is wired much differently than mine.

In 1969 he left JPL and we moved to a small town one hour north of Los Angeles to work for another company as an electrical engineer. We settled into the quiet neighborhood quite nicely, as there were many young families like us on our cul-de-sac. My mother, a Danish immigrant was quite pleased to find that our next door neighbor was Icelandic with two daughters the same ages as me and my sister, and my father seemed to enjoy his new job.

I was a voracious reader and would often peruse their library of books in my mother’s sewing room. Her selections included the likes of Jacqueline Susann and Erica Jong, but my father’s books hardly suited him. I had no idea who the authors were at the time, but upon reading them I was left with more unanswered questions. Why on earth would a left-brained person be interested in what Edgar Cayce or Carl Jung had to say?

One day he came home and abruptly blurted out that we were no longer allowed to attend church. My Lutheran raised mother had embraced the religion since childhood, carrying on the tradition with her young family here in America. She asked him why he would say such a thing, and he responded that he had become an atheist. I suddenly became very angry as I loved going to church, and I ran into my bedroom and slammed the door.

Upon recently reading about Jack Parsons, the cofounder of JPL and his apparent ties to the occult, a Pandora’s box has suddenly been opened. Had my father had been tied to any of this, the black magic that surrounded Parsons and quite possibly (subliminally) the whole of JPL? Before meeting an untimely death on June 17, 1952, Parsons joined and eventually lead the Ordo Templi Orientis, or O.T.O. which was Aleister Crowley’s American lodge of magical order in Pasadena, located just 4 miles from where we lived. Originally modeled after Freemasonry, it might very well have had an influence on the company as well as everything associated with it. Did my father leave JPL because of something that happened there, turning him away from organized religion and God altogether?

I hardly blame my mother for her feelings of alienation from my father after their divorce in 1976. He never seemed the same after that, in fact many years later my mother shared that he had suffered a nervous breakdown after leaving JPL. Needless to say, I was not the least surprised when he told me he had bought a rifle and a boa constrictor as my mother would have never allowed either one in our home.


  1. Very interesting and provocative reading, thanks for posting Suzanne.

  2. Are you sure your father never read Erica Jong?