Reaching JPL at 8 o’clock in the morning is as easy as breaking into four lanes of solid traffic on the freeway, battling a motorcyclist for the rights to commit suicide on the Oak Road exit, and getting past a security guard set at the entrance to Visitor’s Parking in front of the main entrance to JPL.
The guard is dressed in the combat blues of a private security force and looks vaguely like George C. Scott’s Patton character with his sun glasses. Official badges are pinned in impressive arrays beneath the gold braid of his lapel. The radio microphone stalk that snakes over his shoulder makes me think of a breathing tube described in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. It’s either that, or it’s a tube of liquid meat kin to the type the astronauts suck in their space suits. I decide pass up the gate and see if there’s a back way into the promised land.
I circle the west entrance, but someone has placed an inconveniently large concrete block across the center of the drive. They have also added some reinforcing bars that look too high to clear the bottom of our van.
Back at the front entrance, I see that the guard has become occupied with protecting a group of blue suits who are crossing the three main traffic lanes at the official security gates— but not in the clearly marked pedestrian walkway. His whistle shrieks threats at nearsighted motorists. His baton beats a short drum roll on the side of one delivery van, and his radio crackles with more instructions for someone, somewhere. Perhaps he speaks directly with God.
“This way, Sir. Watch your step, ma’am. The wheelchair ramp is behind you.”
“Thump. Move one foot more and I’ll remove your side mirror.”
“Have a nice day. Damn fool scientists…no, I don’t know where Dr. Smartz is…ask the receptionist.”
Our van pops through the unguarded lane alongside the security shack and leaps into the only available space beneath a giant oak tree. Shade! So what if our van is in the compact space. We can use the sliding door. My watch says 7:55 A.M.. Perfect timing. My wife smiles.
Check the briefcase, put on the coat; straighten Lydia’s collar on her red cashmere jacket. We’re off to see the wizards. Use the marked crosswalk.
Bong, ting…the entrance chimes are hushed in the carpeted foyer. Glass doors silently glide to either side of me. Lydia moves forward to reception, I hang back and study a picture of a shuttle launch. A group of visiting corporate types are shaking hands as they attempt to jockey for position at a round meeting table. Tough sell. The executive assistant is backing away from the host so that he won’t intercept the hosting scientist ahead of his boss. His strategy does not work. The host scientist extends his hand to the man who must either grasp the extended appendage or seem rude. The woman in the expensive wool dress behind him smiles, but not with her eyes. I wonder what perfume she wears.
“How nice to see you this morning, Dr. Smartz,” the receptionist says. She smiles and handles the silver haired senior engineer with the consummate skill of someone who takes care of the absentminded and cantankerous. “Your party is waiting for you over there.” She points to a small group of young Japanese in black suits and ties standing at rigid attention near a fake palm tree. My wife moves to the head of the queue.
“I’m Dr. Lydia Frenzel, here to meet with Dr. Karma.”
Diane looks down at her list. “He’s on his way over,” she returns with a genuine, not plastic smile.