By Ken Hamilton
Niagara Gazette — Salvatore Falco is a testimony to the power of patience and perseverance. In the end, a simple autograph on a picture from an aging astronaut would turn out to be the signature piece of his desires, and it would satisfy his very long wait.
Here is how it happened.
Four months and 50 years ago, Falco, a sailor, was eating lunch with the crew aboard the USS Farragut, itself anchored at the Roosevelt Roads Navy Station, about an hour’s drive from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
But on that May 24th day in 1962, a space ship was descending from high over their heads; and a miscalculation of just a few seconds plunged the destroyer’s crew into the year’s first brush with history.
Scott Carpenter, aboard the Aurora-7 spacecraft, was scheduled to splashdown in proximity to the helicopters of the USS Spiegel Grove’s recovery task force; which would pluck the disembarked Navy astronaut from the ocean. But the USS John R. Pierce, a destroyer, was the designated recovery ship for the actual capsule, itself.
Space flight was still in its infancy in those days, and the computerization that would have made Carpenter’s flight a more perfect one did not exist. But a series of events caused the vessel to splash down some 250-miles away from its intended location in the Caribbean Sea.
That left Falco’s ship to be one of the closest naval ships available to find and to assist the off-target spacecraft. Urgency and excitement pulsed through each of the ship’s crewmembers as they weighed anchor and rushed to the search and rescue area. They prepared the necessary rigging and lighting en route for the possible emergency recovery.
Falco said, “It was the USS Farragut’s radars that discovered the exact location of the capsule, and the ship directed the helicopters to it. By the time that we actually got there, the helicopters had already arrived and had plucked Carpenter from the water.”
Awaiting the arrival of Pierce, Farragut stood by and launched her motor whale boats to secure the capsule. A member of one of the small boat’s crews snapped a picture of the bobbing vessel with Farragut in the background.
It was that picture that the now 70-year old Falco, currently living in Erie, Colo., showed to the 87-year-old Carpenter on Sept. 20. Carpenter had returned to his nearby hometown of Boulder, for the rededication of a park that the city had named after him, after his flight.
Carpenter was impressed, saying that he had never seen that picture before. Having told staffers that he was too tired to do anything except shake hands, Carpenter shook Falco’s; and Falco moved on — without an autograph.
But, there was one last hope.
Falco showed the picture to Carpenter’s wife, who whispered to him that ‘she’ would have the astronaut sign it.
And as Farragut had patiently stood by in the choppiness of the Caribbean seas, patiently awaiting its role in the successful completion of Carpenter’s recovery; 50 years later, Falco stood by in a manicured city park, patiently awaiting the completing piece of his 50-year old picture. When Barbara, Carpenter’s wife, returned what was now a bonafied photograph to him, it was one of those, “... eagle has landed,” moments. Carpenter had signed it.
In that single year of 1962, Falco participated in both the recovery of a spacecraft and in the Cuban missile crisis. But because he believed that his brush with Carpenter in 1962, as he said it, “… was the biggest event of my military career;” that scribble from Carpenter on a simple photograph is now Falco’s greatest testament of the power of patience and perseverance, and he teaches such to his twelve and ten-year old grandsons.
It is an inspiring lesson from which we all can learn; because, most things in life that are worth having are as such.
Why would I, or why should you, be interested in such a story?
For me, it is because the USS Farragut is the ship upon which I served a good deal of my 13-year Navy career. Aboard her, there was no greater example of power of patience and perseverance than that of my skipper, Jeremy Michael Boorda. He would go on to become the first and only formerly enlisted man in history to become the Chief of Naval Operations — one of the most powerful admirals in the world.
It was also onboard Farragut that, as one of ship’s photographers, I got to meet and speak with General Alexander Haig; who would also serve as the United States Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan, and was the White House Chief of Staff under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, the latter of which returned one of my salutes.
Why should you be interested?
Because our city has been ‘bobbing in the water’ for as long as Falco had held on to that photograph of the Farragut with Carpenter’s capsule, and I believe that with the patience that we have already invested, with our continued perseverance, and with a little push, like the one that Carpenter’s wife gave Falco, then we have the ability and the power to autograph our own successful futures.
And that’s a lesson that we need to teach to each other.
Contact Ken Hamilton at email@example.com.