9: Paradise Lost
Gravity was reversed, so I had to climb head-first down the ladder
and through the narrow passageway to reach the room that glowed with
a weak blue light.
The warm and moist smell of the sea permeated the cavity. I could
feel a pulse coming through the borders (walls?) of the room.
"What is that
sound?" I asked someone.
"We're vibrating at 7.83 Hertz," the voice said. Then I was
I looked around and saw
a statue. For some reason it created an undefined longing. I looked
Then it moved, and as my heart rose to my throat, the room went
dark. In fear I reached out, feeling the wall for a light switch.
Finally I found one beneath my fingers. I flipped it on. The room
remained dark. I flipped it again. Nothing. Then, seized with a
sudden terror, I forced open my eyes and turned on the bedside lamp.
I sat up and looked around in confusion, then slowly remembered I
was in Pasadena, in a room at the Hilton. The bed coverings were
damp and twisted.
The dream still had a physical presence. It felt familiar, like
something dreamed once before and since forgotten.
After a while I turned off the lamp and went back to sleep.
In her seat on the plane, Trisha ignored the stares of the man
across the aisle. She looked at the slip of paper in her hand.
Gravity is the arch-enemy of successful rocket performance.
It had been one of her father's favorite quotations, taken from the
Journal of the American Rocket Society, April 1940.
There are many types of freedom, she reflected. Her father had
viewed them all of a piece. Freedom meant getting off the planet:
escaping from the gravity well. Freedom also meant the right to live
the Bohemian lifestyle he preferred. To him, separating these
notions into separate spheres, disciplines, or areas of academic or
social discourse was absurd.
He was right, of course. She had searched through his manuscripts
for years, trying to understand. And one day she had discovered the
answer. The same Great Tyrant who had driven their ancestors off the
family farm, so to speak, centuries ago, was also the Being that
kept mankind imprisoned and exiled on an out-of-the-way planet
circling a Type G star.
Because of the Great Tyrant's theft, there had followed century
after century of bloody warfare. Trisha sighed. All this over a
piece of Middle Eastern real estate.
Well, her father had had his reasons for wanting a moonchild. She
had her own.
At the Pasadena Public Library I parked behind a car whose bumper
informed me sex cures headaches and his other car was a piece of
The library had microfilms of two local newspapers published in June
1952: The Pasadena Independent and The Pasadena Star-News. I was
trying to get a clearer picture of what happened the day Parsons
died, looking for anything not reported in the clippings I had
gotten from Homer Nilmot.
The Independent for June 18, 1952, cost five cents. The front page
MOTHER ENDS HER LIFE
House Torn Apart by Explosion
There was a picture of
City Patrolman L.D. Harnois inspecting the debris of the destroyed
apartment at 1071 South Orange Grove. The story said Parsons had
moved from that address on June 1, and he and his wife Marjorie were
staying at 424 Arroyo Terrace--where his mother had a summer
position as caretaker-- while preparing to leave for a trip to
Mexico. Parsons had gone over to the South Orange Grove apartment to
gather up some of his supplies.
In the Los Angeles Times article I had read previously, the
chronology had jumped from the explosion to Parsons being pronounced
dead an hour later at Huntington Memorial Hospital. The Independent
filled in some chilling details.
"Parsons body was
literally torn apart by the chemical blast.
"The explosion blew off his right forearm, tore a gaping hole in
his jaw and shattered the other arm and both legs. He was still
conscious after the blast."
Two upstairs occupants, Mrs. Alta Fosbaugh and Salvatore Ganci
ran down and found Parsons pinned under two heavy washtubs and
one wall. They were able to free him.
Martin Fosbaugh, Mrs. Alta Fosbaugh's son, said Parsons had been
experimenting in order to produce a "super" fog effect for
"Several boxes of highly dangerous chemicals were found outside
the building, apparently placed there by Parsons a few minutes
before the blast."
Parsons could have removed the boxes from the apartment, or
taken them there for storage, or anyone else could have.
When informed of her son's death, Parsons' mother became
hysterical, began drinking heavily, and was given nembutal
tablets. She said: "I can't stand to live without my son; I
simply adored him." She said she "had a gun upstairs," and then
committed suicide by taking the rest of the pills.
There were a few details
about Marjorie Cameron Parsons, Jack Parsons' Scarlet Woman and then
his wife. She arrived at 424 Arroyo Terrace unaware that her
mother-in-law had just died.
"Stoic in the face
of her double loss, she told investigators she and her busband
were to leave last night on a pleasure trip to Mexico. The
hallway of the two-story Arroyo Terrace mansion was crowded with
their packed baggage."
By the following day the
rumor mill had gone into action. The front page headline in the
Thursday, June 19, Independent read:
LINK LOCAL BLAST
WITH WEIRD CULT RITES
There was a picture of
Parsons on the front page. The caption read "John W. Parsons . . .
The story was based on ten-year old police files.
"John W. Parsons,
handsome 37-year-old rocket scientist killed Tuesday in a
chemical explosion, was one of the founders of a weird
semi-religious cult that flourished here about 10 years ago.
"Old police reports yesterday pictured the former Caltech
professor as a man who led a double existence--a down-to-earth
explosive expert who dabbled in intellectual necromancy."
After engaging in some corny psychological speculation that
Parsons was "trying to reconcile fundamental human urges with
the inhuman, Buck Rogers type of inventions that sprang from his
test tube," the article noted:
"Back in 1942 Pasadena police received a letter from San
Antonio, Tex. The writer, who signed himself `A Real Soldier,'
asserted that a `black magic' religious cult was being conducted
from a house at 1003 South Orange Grove avenue."
Located at that address
was, of course, the headquarters of the California Ordo Templi
Orientis as well as Parsons' apartment at the time.
I wondered about the identity of the "Real Soldier." San Antonio?
The Independent article stated the house had been leased to Parsons
"and his wife Marjorie" on June 26, 1942. The reporter had the wrong
wife, of course. Parsons was still married to Helen Northrup in
1942, and had never met Marjorie Cameron. But possibly Jack and
Helen Parsons had first moved to that address in June 1942. Or had
Parsons inherited the house from his father then?
After police received the anonymous letter, Parsons was interviewed
by Det.-Lt. Cecil H. Burlingame. Parsons said he and others had
formed a fraternity which would discuss philosophy, religion,
personal freedom, and fortune telling.
Two years later police investigated a minor fire at the house and
found books and pamphlets about a "mysterious `Church of Thelema.'"
"Police made no
further attempt to probe Parsons' bizarre personal life."
That was reassuring. At
least the Pasadena police had the good sense to mind their own
After the explosion, cartons of PETN and trinitrobenzine had been
removed from Parsons' lab to Ft. MacArthur. Parsons had told a
neighbor he was making fulminate of mercury commercially and the
current batch would be his last.
Parsons was correct on that account.
Friday's paper reported the funeral under the headline "Hold Secret
Funeral Rite for Parsons." Then on Sunday, June 22, the headline
read "Police Drop Probe of Death Blast."
"The case is closed
as far as we're concerned," Det.-Lt. Cecil H. Burlingame
declared." He said a statement by George W. Santmyer "isn't
sufficient to warrant us reopening the case."
This was obviously
referring to Santmyer's statements reported in Saturday's Los
Angeles Times. Santmyer, who had worked with Parsons on a naval
ordinance project, had suggested "someone else" had strewn explosive
materials around the apartment at 1071 S. Orange Grove. The Pasadena
police weren't interested in pursuing that.
I didn't find anything else in the Independent. This was 1952 and
people were preoccupied with U.N. troops battling the Reds in South
Korea, and with the upcoming presidential elections: Eisenhower and
Nixon were running for the Republicans. The front page headline on
June 24 announced:
TINY BOX TELLS
LIVE OR DIE IN ATOM RAID
The accompanying article
referred to the device as a chemical radiation detector, a
may some day wear one around his neck like an Army dog-tag,
according to plans under consideration of state civil defense
Strange world. These
were the same people who thought Parsons belonged to a weird
I turned my attention to the Star-News, and followed its version of
the story, starting again with Wednesday, June 18-- the day
following the explosion. The article implied that all four, not just
two, of the upstairs residents had pulled Parsons from the debris
after the explosion at 5:08 p.m. He had been found lying under a
2-tub laundry fixture.
After dragging Parsons free, they propped him against one wall,
where he was found by the city ambulance crew.
methodically directed his rescuers, while being loaded into the
I thought about that.
About Parsons, his limbs shattered, his right forearm blown off,
methodically directing the ambulance crew.
Parsons was born Oct. 2, 1914, and was the son of Maj. Marvel H.
Parsons and Mrs. Ruth Virginia Whiteside. He had attended the
University School in Pasadena.
There were a number of written notes found in the destroyed
"The notes, most
bearing chemical symbols, but a few carrying philosophical and
religious references, were found on the blast- shattered ground
floor of the structure."
One partially torn note
"Let me know the
misery totally. And spare not and be not spared. Sacrament and
Crucifixion. Oh my passion and shame--."
This was probably
jottings for a poem, like the one Parsons had written for Oriflamme.
Others concerned industrial explosions. One read:
"Texas City Disaster
Report. 433 dead. 128 missing. (The explosive) cannot be
detonated with rifle bullets, blasting caps, or dynamite."
The details of the other
notes weren't given, but the article summarized:
"There were other
notations about the disasterous electric-plating firm explosion
which killed 15 persons in 1947 and another at Parsons' own Aero
Jet plant, in which eight died."
"Ironically, it was
learned that Parsons had been a member of the coronor's jury
which investigated the 1947 explosion of a Los Angeles
electroplating company which killed 15 workers."
The Saturday, June 21,
Star-News reported on Santmyer's statements. Santmyers indicated
Parsons was operating a small explosives manufacturing plant in
Fontana, and was exploring the possibility of a Mexican branch of
his factory. But Parsons' wife Marjorie said no, they were just
going to Mexico on a pleasure trip.
The report was bewildering: "Santmyers told press representatives
that he specifically wanted to quash reports that Parsons was the
victim of a murderer or that he practiced weird religious rites.
" `Jack was the
kindest man I've ever known,' Santmyers declared. `He hadn't an
enemy in the world.' "
At least part of the
statement was plausible. Parsons' problem was he was too nice of a
guy. Back in 1945, he had let L. Ron Hubbard move in with him and
live off his charity, while Hubbard triffled with Parsons' girl
(even if Parsons didn't believe in monogamy) and plotted to steal
Parsons' money. Parsons should have shoved Hubbard down the steepest
incline of the Arroyo Seco.
But the rest of Santmyer's statements were puzzling. The Pasadena
police had assumed from the beginning that Parsons' death was an
accident. The reports in the Star-News, the Independent, and the Los
Angeles Times all implied accidental death also. The first public
indication that there was a problem with the common interpretation
was the story of Santmyer's remarks as given in the Saturday, June
21, Los Angeles Times--the report of a "death angel."
Even so, the police had said in the following day's Independent that
Santmyer's remarks were not sufficient to reopen he case: meaning
the police had interpreted Santmyer as asking them to do just that.
But the same day Santmyer talked to the Los Angeles Times, he told a
Star-News reporter that he was trying to kill two rumors: the rumor
Parsons was murdered, and the rumor Parsons engaged in "strange"
Santmyer was protesting too much. There hadn't been any public
implication that Parsons was murdered apart from the remarks of
Santmyer himself. It certainly wasn't the Pasadena police who had
raised that possibility. So who had? Who were Santmyer's denials
addressed to? It might have been the Army Ordinance experts at Ft.
MacArthur. They could have found suspicious circumstances
surrounding the explosion at 1071 S. Orange Grove.
In addition, the ten-year old police reports only hinted at the
truth about Parsons' "religion", which was one of the tales Santmyer
was attempting to quash. Perhaps the other rumor Santmyer was trying
to spike, the rumor of Parsons' murder, also had a basis in fact.
Homer Nilmot had not sent me on a wild goose chase.
Theodore von Karman had said the FBI had questioned him about Jack
Parsons. Clearly other investigations had gone on than just the one
by the Pasadena police.
Parsons' death had sparked a lot of unusual attention accompanied by
curious denials. It had all the hallmarks of "national security."
The real investigation would be conducted outside the media (and