One of America's best sons
Wally Schirra was simply one of America's best sons.
He was the astronaut who was always approachable. The astronaut with a smile, a good joke, and the warmth that made you feel you were with family. On Oct. 3,1962, while the World Series was being played, an Atlas rocket boosted Wally Schirra and his Sigma Seven Mercury space capsule into earth orbit. Wally proved his skills as a test pilot. He stayed up for six orbits -- nine hours. He had been launched with the same fuel quantity as John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, but he conserved fuel in a way that amazed Mercury Control. In the process he went through his scientific and engineering checklist with an efficiency that would have turned a robot green with envy.
It was what NASA watchers had been waiting for, a perfect flight. Sigma Seven splashed down less than four miles from the main recovery carrier near Midway Island in the Pacific. One broadcaster dubbed it "the flight of the Mongoose." That broadcaster was me.
In the past few months, Wally helped me in my efforts to write a book for the Smithsonian entitled "Live from Cape Canaveral" covering the 'space race' from Sputnik to today. In the book, to be released in early September, we leave no doubt Wally Schirra was not only a great naval aviator, he was a masterful practical joker as well.
One afternoon before his first flight, Wally walked out of his motel room with Inn Keeper Henri Landwirth. Henri was supporting the wounded astronaut with a bloody towel wrapped around his arm. The pool was crowded with reporters and tourists, and we rushed to Schirra's aid. Concerned, I asked, "What happened, Wally?"
Wally turned, nodding toward a large field of palmetto and shaggy oaks. "In there, Jay. It was in there. I don't know what," he groaned with pain, "but we got it -- we got the damn thing. It tore my arm up good."
"Did you call a doctor?"
"There's one on his way," the innkeeper nodded.
"Good," I answered, staring at the thick, bloodied towel.
"We need to wait for the doctor in the room," Henri the innkeeper said, and some of us followed a moaning Wally Schirra inside.
The bloodied astronaut pointed to a large box on his bed, covered with a blanket, and turned to me. "Be careful, Jay. That thing's dangerous. I think it's a mongoose."
"Big mongoose," Henri agreed.
I shook my head. "There are no mongooses in Florida."
"Maybe it got loose or something. Who the hell cares?" Wally argued, growing more agitated. "Damnit, look for yourself."
Being from a farm, I have never been too afraid of animals. I moved toward the box on the bed.
"Careful!" Wally insisted.
I was wondering why there was no movement in the box when -- WHAM! A Huge, spring-loaded hairy thing with long teeth and claws burst through the blanket into my face, knocking me backward onto the floor. Those who had followed me into the room shot outside, stopping a safe distance away. Wally was on the floor beside me, his arms around the "jack-in-the-box wild thing," doubled over with laughter.
In the coming years, the "mongoose" sent some of the country's most daring astronauts and fighter pilots hurtling through doors and windows to safety.
Last week Wally told me his treasured moongoose was still in his garage in California. Today, Wally had to leave us. We'll miss our buddy. But He'll be joining lots of friends that have gone on before. Just do me one last favor Wally -- save me a place. We'll all be along directly.
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