WAACNewsletter
May 2000 Volume 22 Number 2

Articles You May Have Missed


"Restoration Efforts on Space Capsule Don't Clean Up Mystery,"

By Stephan Simon, in the Los Angeles Times.

The Liberty Bell's escape hatch blew open after splashdown in 1961, and an astronaut nearly drowned. Its reassembly at a Kansas site has yet to reveal who or what was to blame. The salt and corrosion come off with diligent scrubbing. So, bolt by bolt and cable by cable, the famed Liberty Bell space capsule is being cleaned up.

But all the scouring has not yet rubbed away the mystery that clings to the Liberty Bell. Or the tarnish that stains a hero's reputation.

The Liberty Bell carried astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom into space on July 21, 1961. It was America's second manned spaceflight, a triumph right up until splashdown. Then, as a helicopter maneuvered to lift the Liberty Bell from the Atlantic, the escape hatch suddenly blew. The capsule flooded and sank. Grissom very nearly drowned. And no one had any clue why.

An inquiry by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration concluded the astronaut was not to blame. But Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff" and the movie that followed forever shaped public opinion by suggesting that a bumbling, panicked Grissom had blown the hatch prematurely.

Restoration experts at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center have spent the last few months uncovering secrets of the Liberty Bell, which was plucked from the ocean floor in a salvage expedition last summer. Working with dental picks and Brillo pads, the crew has painstakingly dismantled, scraped, washed and reassembled nearly every one of the capsule's 25,000 parts. In the process, the restorers have come across tantalizing hints -- though no definite answers -- to the mystery of the hatch.

Restorers noticed that the titanium strip that once connected the hatch door to the capsule is warped by more than half an inch. Perhaps, they speculate, the titanium buckled under the sheer force of impact when Liberty Bell hit the Atlantic. Perhaps the hatch blew through no fault of Grissom's but simply because the metal holding it in place gave out. They find significance as well in the lack of burn marks around the 70 bolts that welded the hatch to the capsule. The bolts all had been rigged with explosives, which Grissom was supposed to detonate once the rescue helicopter lifted the Liberty Bell a few feet above the Atlantic.

The lack of burn marks could signal that the bolts popped off on their own because of some malfunction -- a conclusion that would exonerate Grissom. Yet other Mercury capsules in which the hatch worked fine also lack burn marks.

Although he pledges to "follow all these leads all the way through," the head of the Center doesn't think it's likely his crews will ever reach an undisputed conclusion, especially with the hatch itself still on the ocean floor. The Liberty Bell, he says, will always have "an aura" of wonder about it. "There's still going to be a mystery there."


"Artist Restores Famed Mural Covered Up in Graffiti Sweep,"

By Joe Mozingo, in the Los Angeles Times, Monday, May 8, 2000.

Willie Herron hoped the mural would grow old with his Eastside neighborhood, absorbing the scars of graffiti as venerable signs of aging on the tough, oil-stained alley behind his mother's bakery. Instead, it was coated with layer upon layer of "bureaucratic" beige. That's Herron's name for the paint that county work crews slather all over certain neighborhoods in their efforts to cover up graffiti.

When Herron found his historic 1972 mural -- depicting the gang stabbing of his younger brother -- almost completely obscured by the dull color, he complained to the county Board of Supervisors and was soon commissioned to restore it.

On Sunday, The Wall That Cracked Open was unveiled again, as neighbors, and even old gang rivals, gathered to listen to bands and celebrate one of the city's early Chicano murals.

Herron will forever remember the night he painted it. He was coming home when one of his brothers ran to the car screaming that their brother John had been stabbed in a gang attack. They called an ambulance and rode with him to the hospital, where the boy would later recover. But on the walk home, an image came to Herron. It was of a face -- the face of a plague -- rising from two fighting men, surrounded by his pious grandparents and an Aztec symbol of his ancestry. The plague was gang violence.

When he arrived, he grabbed some paint and set to work to re-create the image. He worked around the existing graffiti and hoped any new gang tagging would complement the mural through time. "I didn't want it to be a freeze-frame," he said. By daylight, he was done with the 18-by-25-foot depiction. It was one of his first public works, forever the closest to his heart, and became renowned among scholars, historians, and art critics.

He watched it grow through the years, as expected, with gang graffiti, and did nothing to keep the tagging at bay. But last July, when he found it and another of his murals -- The Plumed Serpent -- in their new beige coats, apparently applied by county contractors, he had to draw the line.

He began covering The Wall That Cracked Open with plywood, before the abatement crews could implement another county anti-graffiti program and paint vines over it. Then he won the $47,000 commission to restore his work, he said.

The alley in City Terrace might seem an unlikely place for a major art restoration project. The mural sits behind the bakery and the Mi Casa Discount 98-cent store, flanked by two rusted rain gutters and wood electrical box and strafed by a tangle of power lines overhead. Fortunately, his original piece was done in a hearty oil-based paint that remained while he stripped the beige away with a mixture of acetone, paint thinner and denatured alcohol. He didn't have to paint much back in. But the years of graffiti were lost.

"We wanted that," he said. "Now it's kind of a time capsule." So next Herron will actually repaint some of that early graffiti.


"France's Littlest Victims: Stolen Garden Gnomes,"

By John-Thor Dahlberg, in the Los Angeles Times, Saturday, April 15, 2000.

Someone in France is again stealing garden gnomes, those cheery and fuzzy-cheeked symbols of smug suburban contentment. In an after-hours raid on a Paris park where 2,000 of the elfin figures had been assembled for an exhibition, members of a group calling itself the Garden Gnome Liberation Front swiped a score of the sculptures last weekend.

The unknown thieves, in a statement, demanded the "immediate closing of this odious exhibit, as well as the unconditional liberation of the garden gnomes still detained." Act now, they warned Paris authorities, or we will strike again. Is this for real? Patrick Boumard, professor of anthropology at the University of Rennes and author of a study on the French relationship with the decorative sculptures, believes that gnome-napping, which first surfaced here in the mid-'90s, started out as a simple student prank but struck some profound chord in French life.

The garden gnome, the anthropologist says, is a totem of the times we live in and is fraught with all sorts of symbolism -- economic, cultural, emotional. "For my paper, I went out and talked to people who have gnomes in their garden or on their lawn," Boumard said. "I often found surprisingly strong affective connections. Some owners, for instance, wash their gnome every day. Others take their gnome in for the night and put him to bed. Many people talk to their gnome as if it were their favorite child. These objects allow a regression into childhood without a visit to the psychiatrist. I call them the 'Freud of the poor.' "

To proprietors in France or other countries, the gnome is a badge of middle-class ease. Is it an accident, inquires Boumard, that the gnome in its current state, with pointed red hat and wooden clogs, first appeared in 15th century Germany, along with the nascent European bourgeoisie? These days, an estimated 30 million of the small figures stand guard in the yards and gardens of Western Europeans, yet another example of homogenizing European taste. For high priests of artistic taste, the sculptures -- made in the likeness of one of Walt Disney's Seven Dwarfs, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Tom Thumb, a Nordic troll or any of countless other models -- are the epitome of pure kitsch. This may be another reason for their owners' fondness.

In the summer of 1996, masked commando bands operating around the city of Alencon in Normandy staged nightly raids to "liberate" gnomes by taking the terra cotta, ceramic or plastic figurines from people's yards and setting them loose in the forest, their supposed natural environment. There were copycat incidents in Alsace, in Brittany, and along the Mediterranean coast. Some homeowners, who had paid up to $100 apiece for their gnomes, failed to see any humor in the thefts and lodged complaints with police. Others took their sculptures into the house at night, for safety's sake. Incidents of gnome abduction spread to Switzerland, Britain, and other countries.

In one bizarre ritual, the garden statuary was made to symbolize the discontents of modern civilization. Eleven gnomes were hanged by the neck off a bridge in eastern France, and a mock suicide note was left that said, "When you read these few words, we will no longer be part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decoration."

In 1997, French police and courts struck a heavy blow against the self-styled gnome liberators in the northern city of Bethune. Three young men, ages 18 to 21, were convicted of stealing 182 gnomes as well as two statues of Snow White. They were given suspended prison sentences of one to two months. The opponents of gnome captivity eventually broke into two groups, the Liberation Front and the more "pacifist" Garden Gnome Emancipation Movement, which is trying to create the world's biggest Web site on gnomes at http://www.menj.com.

The removal of some of the figures from the show at the Bagatelle Gardens in Paris was the first action claimed on the Liberation Front's behalf in three years. City officials were unruffled and said the exhibition will run as scheduled until July 23 despite the group's demands. Meanwhile, Boumard announced that the University of Rennes will hold a three-day conference in June to further explore the complex relationship between the French and garden gnomes.

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