Thursday, April 19, 2012


Astronaut Gene Cernan and John Flannery
This week we celebrate our retreat from the exploration of space.
Thirty Thousand onlookers are visiting Washington Dulles International Airport to welcome the arrival of the Space Shuttle Discovery so that it may be powered down and cabined away in retirement at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
We should be mourning instead of celebrating because taking this shuttle out of service shows that our nation lacks the resolve that put a man on the moon, a space station in orbit, and an all-seeing eye (the Hubble Telescope) in the sky to show us the way to the stars.
It has been my honor and privilege to know several astronauts who risked their lives and devoted their careers to space exploration. 
When I asked Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, what he thought about retiring the shuttle, Gene said, “we now have several new space museums.” 
Only last September, Gene told Congress that “we had the most capable operationally proven launch vehicle available … giving [the United States] unprecedented personal and payload access to low Earth orbit,” and warned Congress that the retirement of the shuttle fleet would leave us with “zero capability to access” the space station and the idea was “poorly thought out and premature.” 
Gene wonders why he spent thirteen years of his life exploring space – if we have decided to squander all that we’ve learned by retiring our shuttle fleet and “disabling our nation’s space program.”  The poet Shelley wrote of a king who lamented, “look on my works, ye mighty and despair!  Nothing beside remains.”  Does this lament describe our space program?
The Discovery Shuttle spent 365 days on 30 missions, three missions working on the Hubble Telescope.  It is the fourth shuttle orbiter taken out of service and consigned to a trophy case.  The Shuttle Enterprise is moth-balled in New York, the Endeavor in LA, and the Atlantis in Florida.  These other shuttles completed an additional 100 missions. 
Cernan told Congress last September that our nation is “on a path of decay,” surrendering its lead in space to its former adversary, Russia, and jeopardizing any possible return to the moon or exploration of Mars. 
Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell told me, “It is a shame that we are putting these good Orbiters out to pasture when they could still be supporting the International Space Station (ISS).”  Lovell said, “The money saved in [the Shuttles’] demise is being wasted in a confused budget supporting a ‘mission to nowhere’ space program.”
The world renowned Cambridge Physicist Stephen Hawking, in his book, “The Universe in a Nutshell,” said that “by 2600 the world’s population will be standing shoulder to shoulder, and electricity use will make the Earth glow red-hot.” 
Hawking said there is a “sick joke” that “the reason we have not been contacted by extraterrestrials is that when a civilization reaches our stage of development, it becomes unstable and destroys itself.” 
Hawking doesn’t, however, “believe the human race has come so far just to snuff itself out when things are getting interesting.”  He is concerned, however, that “we shall have to explore the galaxy in a slow and tedious manner,” absent some variant of warp drive.
“We must continue explorations in space,” Apollo 14 lunar pilot Edgar Mitchell told me, “as that is our destiny.”
The Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, in his popular book, “Space Chronicles,” says, “we know in our minds, but especially in our hearts, the value to our culture of new voyages and the new vistas they provide.” 
Tyson says we have to return to the moon again because we “haven’t been out of low Earth orbit for 40 years,” and must “remind ourselves how to do that,” and “figure out how to set up a base camp and sustain life in a place other than Earth;” also we know that any trip to Mars “takes about nine months” whereas the Moon is “three days away.” 
Tyson explains that the $100 billion dollar cost spread over the several years still amounts to less than one-half of one percent of our tax budget.
Another cost of shutting down manned space flight is the many young men and women who might devote their studies, their lives and genius to space if, as Gene puts it, our nation had not made “a pledge to mediocrity.” 
President John Kennedy told the students at Rice University on September 12, 1962, that there are those who “would have us stay where we are …”  These stand-patting mediocrities abound to this day.  Kennedy challenged students and the nation at large to embark on “the great adventure of all time.”  We must renew those challenges to persist in this adventure, and for the very same reasons Kennedy said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills …” 
Jim Lovell once famously said, “Houston we have a problem.” We sure do again, and we’d better fix it.  We must start by listening to the astronauts who traveled in space -- instead of the small thinking bureaucrats who just take up space.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


We spend a lot of time seeming to care about what happens from conception to cradle but not hardly enough as a community after children are actually born.
Judging by how many children are abandoned, beaten, tortured, sexually mistreated, addicted, uneducated, jobless, homeless, hungry, lost in our society to prostitution or pornography, and flat out killed in cold blood, we’re shamefully indifferent once we’ve encouraged everyone in creation to have children – and as many as they can.
My twin aunts Honora and Alma Flannery had a vocation to help children and spent a lot of their time at the New York Foundling Hospital starting in the 1950s. 
The Foundling found its mission after the Civil War when children showed up abandoned at St. Peter’s Convent on Barclay Street.  The good sisters opened a house especially for these abandoned children in 1869.  The very first day they formally opened, an infant was abandoned, left at their door step.  They tried from that day forward to care for these children, to supervise them and place them in good homes.  My aunts joined those that had gone before them in that effort.  But it was like trying to empty the ocean with a tea cup.  There were too many children.
Years ago, in the 80s, I met a red-headed high school student, then in Loudoun County.  His father, who suffered from schizophrenia, abandoned him before he was born, and his mother left him at the hospital once he was born.  You might think he got a break because he was taken in by his grandparents, except for the fact that they kept him in a closet, fed him animal food, and he developed lifelong disabilities from his confinement, abuse and malnutrition.  He also suffered from the onset of childhood schizophrenia – a genetic “gift” from his absent birth father.  I met him, after he’d been adopted by a good family, but also when he was charged with murdering another young man in Sterling.  We managed to avoid his execution on the murder charge, to save his “life,” and he’s awaiting parole in our Virginia prison system, meaning that he may never be released from custody.  This young man is not so exceptional among unwanted children. 
We might like to salve our collective conscience with the thought that some charity or government agency like the Foundling has got this covered and foster care and adoption are meeting the need.  Think again!
When I lived in the Bronx in our family’s best neighborhood ever, in the Throggs Neck section, a family next door served as “foster parents.”  They had new kids in and out so often it would make your head spin.  The adults that hosted the children were paid for their foster care “services.”  I suppose they did the best they could.
These kids in foster care often came from homes where they were abused physically or mentally or neglected – and the foster care system “succeeds” when it can return these children to the family that beat them, mistreated them, neglected them  – “reunification” it’s called – with assurances from the birth parents that they are never gonna do that again – until they often do (and are found out). 
It is chilling to consider that the youngest children are at the greatest risk, both infants and toddlers, higher than any other age group, and the number of serious injuries has quadrupled among these children in recent years. 
You can judge the results of foster care by what happens when these young men and women “age out” of foster care – and are on their own.  84.8% have no High School Diploma or GED.  22% are homeless.  16.8 % are on public assistance.  33.2 percent are involved in crime.  54.4 % have behavioral and emotional, school related, and mental and/or physical issues.  50% of the young women repeat the cycle that brought them unwanted into the world – as they have early pregnancies.
If you want to help, discourage unwanted children with birth control and better parenting advice to our children, than “just say no,” become a father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5, and James 1: 27) and adopt a child (if you can), or help other good families adopt, or read about the plight of these children and what some are doing (try Jill Duer Berrick’s book, “Take me Home”), or write to learn more about what to do to help those “aging out” of foster care (, as that’s how I got my stats for this column, and, if you care that much, start a “project aged out” in our own community – heaven knows, we could use one.
If America wants to continue to breed with abandon, then it has a responsibility to these unwanted children that it now completely ignores. 
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Thursday, April 5, 2012


Terry Fator, his Mom Marie, and Terry’s “friends”, Emma Taylor and Winston the Impersonating Turtle

When trying to figure out what to do with your life, Joseph Campbell would tell his students, “Follow your bliss!”

How many Dads or Moms have snuffed out the spark that might illumine a life when they told a son or daughter, forget about it, you can’t make a living at it, and, if you even try, you’re no longer a member of this family?

Yeats said it was a curse to dream things that the world has never seen.  But such people enliven the world when they dare to make their dreams a reality.  In truth, the curse that we truly suffer is those who refuse to dream at all, for themselves, or for their children.  Proverbs say, “When there is no vision, the people perish…”  Blinding the young to the possibility of life is a cruel reality that endangers us all.

I was reminded of this sad and certain fact last week in between lectures on DNA alleles and how blood viscosity affects spatter at a forensics conference in Las Vegas.

While there I met Terry Fator, my wife Holly’s cousin. Terry’s now a top headliner at the Mirage Hotel, and a world-renowned ventriloquist, impressionist, singer and comedian, with a five year $100 million performance contract.  But Terry, now in his 40s, has fought against a strong headwind since he was 10 years old.

You may have seen Terry on David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey or Larry King. 

But it was on “America’s Got Talent” that he got his “big break” when he won a nationally televised contest that gave him a million dollars in prize money – after almost thirty years of church socials, birthday parties, county fairs, menial survival jobs, personal abuse, and, perhaps the most disappointing, a highly disapproving and abusive father who threatened at every turn to make Terry’s dream of fulfilled bliss a nightmare. 

Terry always knew he wanted to perform: he appeared in school plays, spoke louder and clearer than his peers, discovered that he could sing, and later that he could sing in the voice of almost any great performing artist, male or female, from Louie Armstrong to Cher. 

After discovering ventriloquism in a book at the library, Terry practiced saying the letters of the alphabet without moving his lips while he worked doing janitorial services.  Ultimately, he could not only speak but sing without moving his lips.
Finally, Terry had a real gift for writing and delivering a funny line.

But here’s the rub. 

From the very beginning, Terry’s father, Jep, abused Terry, making him uncertain that he had any gifts at all, telling him that he couldn’t sing, that he shouldn’t play with these dummies, and that he couldn’t write.

Terry was not, however, going to give up his dream, although he chased unsuccessfully after his father’s approval, in his own words, as Alice chased after the white rabbit in Wonderland.
Luckily, Terry was not entirely alone in his quest.  He was sustained in his life’s ambition by his mother Marie and by his siblings, Jep Jr.and Debi.

At his 20th birthday, Marie gave Terry a professional, hand-carved wooden dummy.  Terry named him Walter T. Airdale 27 years ago – kept him through various repairs and upgrades – and Walter announced at a performance last week that Holly and I attended that he was the first “manikin American” running for President with the campaign slogan, “nobody puts words in his mouth”  

No question Terry pays back and forward.  When Terry won the million dollars on “America’s Got Talent,” he confided to his sister that now he could afford the treatment that she needed for her debilitating rheumatoid arthritis.  After his brother shared the stage with Terry in various band incarnations before Terry went solo, Jep Jr. became President of Terry Fator Companies.  At every performance, Terry honors the military and sets aside contributions that he once could only hope he’d ever be able to give back.

Terry’s Mom, Marie, and her husband, David Sligh, brought us to see Terry in rehearsal, to his show and then to dinner with Terry and Taylor.  Taylor performs in Terry’s act and she’s more than that.  Terry and Taylor found each other in Las Vegas, fell in love, and now they’re happily married.

A few years ago, Terry wrote a book about his life, that he must have – at least unconsciously – intended as an answer to his Dad’s slanders against his high ambition; it’s titled, “Who’s the Dummy Now?”

Not all young men and women have the resolve and belief in self and can find the support elsewhere among family that allows for success.  It’s most offensive therefore when we stifle the dreams of the young who we insist are our legacy.