Higher LearningColonel John Stapp in the rocket sled at
Edwards Air Force Base - 1955.

We’ve all gone to school for endless years but it’s rare to remember a certain day when you actually learned two things.

In 1952, I went to Dhahran Kindergarten in the portable that later became the infamous Teen Canteen. In First grade, I went to the portable close by that eventually became the Hobby Shop. What a great place. Anyone could come in and use all this marvelous equipment: drill presses, table saws, grinders, belt sanders and the like. Much later in life, my friends and I scrounged up pieces of flat metal and made a variety of swords and edged weapons that enabled us to thwack and hack at hedges and oleander branches all over camp.

I only remember a couple of things about the First grade. Right away I tried to duplicate my hooky playing exploits from Kindergarten but they were on to me by then and I only managed two days. The second thing I remember was that it was around Thanksgiving and we had to color-in various pictures of Pilgrims and Indians, turkeys and cornucopias. I had an Indian picture that I enthusiastically put the old crayons to.

When the day was over we all had to line up at the door. The teacher came down the line looking at our great artwork when she stopped at me. She took my Indian and held it up to say, “Children. This is not the way to color a picture. Tim has colored outside the lines.” I was stunned. This was my masterpiece. Was it not brilliant? Apparently not. Oh well, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

I imagine the teacher thought that she was giving me a lesson in life but it backfired. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “If that’s the way you want to play it, I’ll never color inside the lines as long as I live.” And that pretty much determined my destiny for years to come.

In Second grade I finally went to school in the actual school building, the one that later became half pool hall and half library. Our classroom had about twenty kids and it felt like a real place of higher learning.

At the time one of my good friends was Ralph W. He was big for his age, very shy and really smart with an avid interest in science and technology. We were both enamored with aircraft and rockets, so one day at the movies we were mesmerized by the newsreel that showed Colonel Dr. John Paul Stapp nearly breaking the sound barrier on a rocket sled.

Higher LearningColonel Stapp during his historic
land speed record.

Strapped into that contraption, the rocket was ignited and he went skating down the rails at 623 miles per hour, faster than a 45 caliber bullet. The footage of his face being distorted by the massive G-forces completely blew us away. At the end, when the sled braked in 1.4 seconds, Colonel Stapp was subjected to 43 G, the impact of hitting a brick wall at 120 miles an hour. His cheeks were bulging like water balloons, his eyeballs popping out of their sockets, his jaw distended. We were amazed. We had a new hero in our pantheon and though the movie was entirely forgettable, we showed up the next day just to see the newsreel again.

For some reason I was seated in the front row of our Second-grade classroom – probably so the teacher could keep an eye out. Ralph sat right behind me. She was demonstrating cursive writing on the blackboard, so I turned around to make some smart-ass remark to Ralph. Before I could say a word, right before my eyes one of the long fluorescent lamps on the ceiling gave away on one end and the whole fixture came swinging down like a pendulum to nail Ralph right in the side of the head. He just vanished from his seat. The dangling fixture sparked and smoked above his desk. Pandemonium broke out. Bleeding from his head, Ralph was unconscious on the floor and we were all screaming and yelling. Finally, order was restored, we were sent out of the classroom and the ambulance came for Ralph who by this time was awake but dazed.

Milling around outside after Ralph was hauled away, I happened to meet an administrator named Louis, an articulate, skinny, handsome Palestinian who worked in the principal’s office. He hadn’t heard the news so I immediately told him about Ralph’s accident. When I finished, he asked me if Ralph was injured. I had never heard the word “injured” before, so I asked him what that meant. He explained that it meant “was he hurt?” Yes, he was hurt all right, he was hammered right out of his chair. So on that day in Second grade I learned two things. The meaning of the word “injured” and, more importantly, just when you least expect it some damn thing will come out of nowhere to hit you upside the head. It was a defining moment in my education. Actually, it was probably the most important thing that I ever learned in my life.

Ralph showed up at school a few days later with a massive bandage wrapped around his head. After Fifth grade, his dad left the company and I haven’t heard from Ralph since.

Colonel Stapp survived the rocket sled ride with fractured ribs, two broken arms and permanent retinal damage that left him partially blind in one eye. That didn’t deter him and he went on to ride it countless times as he devised safer seats and restraints for Air Force pilots. He was the inventor of crash test dummies and became a huge champion of seat belts in cars, thereby saving tens of thousands of lives.

Higher LearningBallerinas from the Ballet Russe
de Monte Carlo - 1940.

Fittingly, as in the case of Ralph W. – when a Major Murphy rigged all the electronic sensors on Stapp’s rocket sled backward so that all the readings were zero – Stapp coined the famous theorem known as Murphy’s Law. “If anything can go wrong, it will.” Later he composed Stapp’s Law, “The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment a miracle.”

Stapp had vowed not to marry until he finished his dangerous work with the rocket sled, so at the age of 48, he married Lillian Lanese, a ballerina with the famous Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Eight years later he was present when Lyndon Johnson signed the Mandatory Seat Belt Act. In 1999 our hero Colonel Dr. John Paul Stapp died at the age of 89 in Alamogordo, New Mexico and I’ve always wondered where Ralph is these days.

Read more by Tim Barger.