Happy Trails Cold Warrior!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gale Stromberg with the Arriba Rocket
It's the kind of party that the man to your right would have very much enjoyed. I wish he could be there. After all, it is in his honor. It's my hope and prayer -- however -- that he will be there in spirit.

I lost a big part of me this past week -- a loss that not even I can comprehend at this point. The gentleman to your right, pictured in front of the rocket he helped build (the Arriba), passed away last week from lung cancer. His death closed a chapter on a wonderful period in my life and in the life that is the wonderful wife -- Venus.

Gale Stromberg -- Rocket Man Extraordinaire -- took his final breath under heavy sedation inside a Kaiser Hospital Room in Roseville. The old man was 75-years young. With him, passed the story -- and a life -- of a lifetime.

Services for Gale -- and the party that he most certainly would have enjoyed -- will take place this weekend.

Gale with daughter, Venus
I wasn't expecting this -- to be be brutally honest. Up until his dying day I kept telling him -- more like pleading -- that he had at least another 20-years of life yet to live. There are unfinished projects to complete I told him. There is a lawn to plant. Landscaping projects demand his attention. There are gardening boxes yet unbuilt.

Yet -- nothing could sway the cancer that claimed the life of the most wonderful father that I will ever have in this lifetime. He may have been -- by law -- just a father-in-law. But the men who proceeded him in my lifetime can't hold a candle to the impact he had on me.

There are those men -- and women -- who come around and brighten your life ever so rarely that you can count them on the fingers of just one hand. Gale Stromberg was that man. His passing leaves a hole inside of me that I doubt will ever be filled.

The title to this post is fitting -- because the gentle man that was Gale Stromberg was indeed the consumate Cold Warrior. A self-taught engineer who grew up during World War II -- Stromberg volunteered most of his life in the service of this country. His accomplishments are the stuff of legend.

Gale with grandaughter, Celina
By the time I met Gale -- as a young man in desperate pursuit of his lovely daughter -- most of his work on behalf of the United States military had already come and gone. Gale Stromberg had retired to the hills of Auburn -- where he put his engineering skills to work on cracking the thick lava cap that blanketed the half acre of backyard so he could grow citrus trees and other wonders. In every backyard that Gale ever landscaped, citrus trees grow. Citrus trees thrive.

Gale loved his citrus. Gale loved a challenge. Crack that lava cap he did in the most ingenious of ways. Where other men used dynamite -- Gale used the gray matter between his ears. No problem -- no obstacle -- ever slowed him down. His engineering skills won the day.

Gale was born in 1935 -- and his formal education lasted little beyond a high school diploma. Perhaps it was the sight and sound of the V2 rockets used by Nazi, Germany in World War II that drove him into the field of rocket science, nobody is really sure. But the Rocket Man left his mark.

After a short career at Aerojet in Rancho Cordova -- the father-in-law went to work for United Technologies (UTC) in the Bay Area. It was there where the old man help develop the fuel systems for the Atlas, Titan and Rapier missiles and the dreaded Tomahawk Cruise Missile that was unveiled to the world for the first time during the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.

Gale and Venus on Lake Nicaragua
If he wasn't designing fuel systems that struck fear into the hearts of ruthless dictators around the world, he was helping design booster rockets for the Space Shuttle program. Although his work took place so very long ago -- elements of it are still in use today -- long after the old man said goodbye to the 40-hour work week.

When the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall finally fell -- Gale's career in rocket science came to an end. Funding for the research and design work that he dedicated his life too dried up. He was still fairly young when he was offered the Golden Handshake that many defense workers would receive -- but the old man recognized opportunity and jumped at it.

He would spend the rest of his life building garden boxes, buying and selling homes during the real estate boom, entertaining grandchildren and studying the somewhat young man his daughter brought home to his house one day. He just wasn't sold yet on the kid who would someday call him father-in-law. That is -- until -- I asked for his help in building a garden box for the backyard.

Suddenly -- I was alright in his world.

Stromberg Gardening Boxes
The garden boxes in use today in our North Natomas farm are a far cry from the simple project boxes we tackled at first. Inspired by his original design -- I took it and produced something on a much grander scale. The "V for Venus"  gardening boxes that grow heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, vegetables, melons and other produce simply would not have happened without Gale Stromberg.

It's because of Gale that I can design and build boxes for any use. It's because of Gale Stromberg that I can install PVC irrigation systems for small and large yards. It's because of him that I can optimize the use of drip irrigation technologies. Because of him -- I can install electrical outlets and switches. I have carpentry, irrigation and electrical skills that I never dreamed I would ever acquire because of this one man.

I was a sponge. I soaked it all in. And -- over time - I came to love him like I had no other man. I didn't quite realize this until he had taken his last breath. But now -- that he's gone from this world -- I've come to realize what a treasure this man was.

Gale Stromberg with grandchildren
Cancer is a terrible way to die. It's a terribly dehabilitating disease that robs every last decency and respect from a man before robbing him of his last breath. Gale fought the good fight before his death. His final year was spent enjoying the myriad of western shows and movies that are shown on the Encore Western Channel. What he had marveled at in his youth on the silver screen -- he saw again from the comfort of his home.

When he had seen all there was to see -- and build all there was to build -- it was time for the final trip home.

Too bad none of us were ready to say goodbye.


Anonymous said...

What a lovely tribute to your Father in law, Bill. I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. I imagine that the tomatoes will grow extra vigorously this year in his honor!

LauraBee said...

My condolences to you & Venus on the loss of this amazing man. Though they were 20 years apart in age, he sounds a lot like my husband's grandfather, down to the stint at AeroJet after the war ! I know you feel blessed to have known him & hope the good memories of a life well-spent buoy the two of you in the days ahead.

drew said...

That's a wonderful tribute Bill. Condolences to you and Venus.

Stephen said...

Bill -
My first job out of school as an Engineer put me right in the hands/path of your Father-in-Law. He definitely had a strong influence on who I am today.... I too send my condolences to you and Venus (who I would constantly hear about over our lunchtime card games back in the 80s/90s!)

Bill Bird said...


Can you contact me please? My email address is billbird@gmail.com. Thank you!

Brown Thumb Mama said...

Bill and Venus, my heart goes out to you during this tough time. What a wonderful tribute and I hope you enjoy reliving the many memories you made and things you learned from your father-in-law.

rcernr said...

It has been many, many years since I worked with your Dad. I was an engineer at UTC after transferring from Pratt & Whitney in 1963. I don't remember much about Gale except that I believe that he built a sailplane and fitted it with "jato" assist.

I'm happy that you have such good memories of him.

Tom Devine,

G.Ellis said...

Wanted to say just a few words, I can relate very well to your loss due to cancer-my son passed away from the disease. I also worked at U.T.c. Coyote in 1969, and was involved with some of Zoomie,s(as we called him) testing on small rocket motors. I remember him well even after all these years. What stands out well in my mind was his passion for getting the test results. I left there and retired from Cape Canaveral Chemical Systems Divison(U.T.C.) in 2008--yes I still remember him-

Bill Luehmann said...

My condolences to you and Venus. For years, Zoomie ran an airbreathing propulsion system test facility at UTC. The main purpose of this facility was to test ramjet engine systems, and it was a complicated setup, using steam ejection to simulate altitude effects, and a blowdown system to produce the vast quantities of heated air that are ingested by the propulsion system. A secondary use of the facility was as a supersonic freejet to test nosecone insulation samples, simulating the thermal effects produced by high speed flight of missiles and launch vehicles. Throughout the 1980's and 1990's, I was a frequent internal customer at Zoomie's facility for these aeroheating tests, and both he and the folks who worked for him and later ran the facility themselves were invaluable in not only making sure that the system met our needs, but helped us a great deal in designing some of the hardware necessary to do these jobs.

David said...

I'm so sorry to hear of Zoomies passing. I worked with him in the 70's and through the 80's at C.S.D. in the Ramjet facility and will always remember him. He had a great sense of humor and was a kind and generous person. My condolences to all.

Dave Mann

Bill Bird said...

A tremendous amount of thanks to all of Gale's former work associates. Venus and Mark appreciate it very much. Gale spoke fondly of his time at UTC -- at the test facility and "working with the guys." He always had a story to tell about one adventure or another. Your friendship and kinship enriched his life.


SouthCoast Guy said...

Sorry for your loss


Lovely post.

Steve Jurovich said...

RIP Zoomie. You were an inspiration to me as a recent college graduate and rookie rocket test engineer. I will never forget the projects I had the pleasure of working with you on.