September 10, 2002
Saturn's Ninjas

My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. Here's one of them:

Today the Kennedy Space Center has been part of Cape Canaveral and Merrit Island so long it seems it has always been there. Not so. In 1949, when Cape Canaveral was designated the Joint Long Range Proving Ground, there was literally nothing there. A few sand dunes, some swamps, and a whole lot of alligators.

It was only with the formation of NASA in 1958 and the designation of Cape Canaveral as the nation’s “moonport” that things began to take off. But the cape itself, and later its Merrit Island extension, was off limits, and had been since it was a testing ground for Army rockets. The extreme violence of the continual rocket launches of various types was (usually) tightly contained, and so the areas around the main facilities were left almost pristine.

The cape had, but for some tightly controlled areas, essentially become a huge de-facto game preserve. This status was made official in 1963 with the creation of the Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge. No hunting, no fishing, no diving. Of course, wildlife in the area exploded.

But it was the fishing that was the real attraction. Filled with costal lagoons and shallow rivers, the new game preserve caused the local game fish population to increase to two and a half times that of the surrounding area. Not only were there more fish, they were bigger, and it was not uncommon for world-record weight lunkers to be caught just outside the preserve's areas.

As with other attempts to fish the preserve, the problem wasn’t actually catching the fish, it was doing so without getting caught yourself in the process. Some folks resorted to small-scale camouflage attempts, but this didn’t result in anyone actually getting to eat anything. What was called for was something bigger, more elaborate.

Enter the fish commandos. One of the contractors had a group of guys who’d gotten proficient at netting fish. You know, the kind of nets you cast in a big circle and then haul in almost like a basket. In the right conditions, dozens of fish could be caught this way very quickly. They now had a way to catch them.

The next problem was timing. The local MPs and game wardens were not famous for their observational skills, but even they would notice a group of guys standing waist-deep in water furiously casting nets in a restricted area. They wanted to eat, but they didn’t want to do it in prison. So it was decided the best time to perform this covert gospel-like miracle would be the middle of the night. This wasn’t quite as absurd as it sounds, as most of the crews regularly pulled 12 and 24 hour shifts at this time. There were lots of people around in the middle of the night.

Of course, this meant there were lots of law-enforcement types around in the middle of the night as well, in addition to the great big fences that surrounded the launch complexes themselves. So a location was found far from any lights, inconvenient MPs, or other curious types who couldn’t be trusted to keep such an important secret. A bit of bolt and wire cutter work was all that was needed to create the perfect secret entrance.

This made transportation something of a problem, as people trudging around in the middle of the night with huge nets full of fish might attract unwanted attention. So a few resourceful individuals volunteered some old pickup trucks, which not only would provide their fishy ninjas with transportation, but also with the cargo capacity needed to haul the load back.

The final destination was chosen to be the half-completed 39B launch complex. Created more to ensure the renewal of federal funding than any real need to double NASA’s ability to launch Saturn Vs, 39B was at the time a warren of unused, half-completed storage and machine spaces far from the prying eyes of law enforcement or nosy bureaucrats.

So roughly once a week, a Saturday or Sunday usually, a pair of blacked-out pickup trucks would leave late at night on a mission. They’d go bouncing down unpaved and only vaguely marked roads to their secret fence door, where black clad men would leap out and quickly steal away into the dark, only to return minutes later doubled-over with nets full of their wriggling quarry. After ensuring their treasure was safely flopping away in the truck beds, the darkened vehicles would bound back up through the inky blackness to their safe-house, a half-finished concrete mound surrounded with silent cranes and stacks of iron bars. The trucks would rendezvous in front of a room already filled with crushed ice, where their catch would be stored for the next day’s big cookout. Their mission complete, they would return to their normal routine already savoring the fillets that would be theirs tomorrow.

Much later, a construction foreman was heard wondering out loud why just one storage room on the new pad always smelled so strongly of fish. “Must’ve been something in the concrete”, he was told.

Posted by scott at September 10, 2002 12:35 PM

eMail this entry!

Is it safe to assume your dad was one of the "Ninjas? LOL!!

Posted by: Pat on September 11, 2002 09:00 AM

So nicely written as usual! As a child of 24 years of age I remember traveling the coast of Florida and suddenly asked Hubby to pull over to cast a few. Well, I never catch fish I married into the "Hoerske curse" ! But this day I was landing them as fast as I could cast out. A huge storm was brewing and I had NO bucket for my stash so headed off to Kmart for a container. I bought a Styrofoam cooler and headed back to the fishing site and as I was leaving I heard a horn honking! Well, I was so excited I left the kid on the roof of the car in his little car seat! "Oh my gosh" I pulled right over and Eric was laughing as the rain hit his head! He's thirty years old now and laughs at this still but I cringe when I think of what a stupid thing that I did because I was so excited about the fish I caught. When we got home that night I noticed my wallet was missing! You got it I left it on the roof of the car too! The next day I had a message from someone at NASA and they found my wallet in the parking lot! Yikes! Wayne drove back to meet him the next day and all my credit cards and money were in tack and he said he worked at NASA. Wayne recalls that we were on Cocoa beach. At 54 years old I can't believe he remembers that. He says it was across from Cape. Enjoy Elizabeth Hoerske

Posted by: Elizabeth Hoerske on September 30, 2002 11:11 PM

Scott, enjoyed your story. As one of the Apollo crew, on both 39A&B, we had a different way to get those delectable sea creatures. We dressed in oversized rain suits because of the frequent rain showers and fabricated belts with hooks that allowed one to slip one or two monsters inside each pantleg.Then someone came up with a rod and reel that compressed down to twelve inches, small enough to also fit inside the pant leg. We would send someone to the top of the tower with binoculars and walkie talkies, talking in code, to watch out for the cops. We would then scatter out to our favorite spots and the spotter on the tower not only would look out for the Barney Fifes, (security guards with a gun and one bullet that was kept in their shirt pocket)but would also spot these big fish and guide us to them.
Occasionaly we would get stopped on the way back to the pad, always walking with a stiff leg,or two and would tell the guards that we had hurt our knees or something. Worked every time.We had fresh fish almost every day.
Another true story concerned the Barney Fife's. Just prior to the first launch of a Saturn V, they made their perimeter checks, looking for tourists and intruders hiding in the brush. One guard was sent on the inner perimeter road, the one that went around the pad and down through the gox vapor dispersal area, a special area about five acres across, bulldozed out like a large pit so that gox coming off the bird would dissipate safely away from the pad.
As he drove down into the depression, his truck caught on fire. He had time to get off a call that he was on fire. Of course, a fire truck roared down to put out the fire, he too caught on fire, then the supervisor, wondering what the commotion was all about, also drove into the depression, followed by another truck , also catching on fire. They couldn't understand what was causing it. They lost four vehicles that night due to a unseen 100% oxygen atmosphere in the pit area.The vehicles was totally destroyed, looked like weld burn slag.
I'm rather curious if your dad was on Apollo I, if so, contact me on my email.

Posted by: S. Clemmons on September 19, 2003 08:22 AM
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