How Bob Survived War, Touched Outer Space, and Showed Me How to Be Old
“Dear Bob,” began a letter I wrote to Bob Lott on his 80th birthday in 2004. “I hope you’ll take this the right way, but as much as anybody I know, you’re the one who has taught me the most about growing old — or at least about growing old the way I would want to grow old.”
Long before I was born, Bob saved a group of soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II by improvising with a broken bazooka. As the space age unfolded, he designed experiments that went into unmanned NASA spacecraft that are still zipping through the cosmos. He once performed as a clown in the Nixon White House — a statement that sounds like a set-up line for a late-night comic.
Bob was my mother’s cousin, and for most of my life lived near Washington, DC. But he was close to my mother and my grandparents and often around when I was growing up. And then, in the 1980s, when I was in my twenties, I moved to DC, where I knew pretty much no one. I started spending time with Bob and his wife, Min. Bob became something of a substitute father.
Bob was always old enough to seem old to me. What I initially came to admire about him was not anything from his glorious past, but how he behaved in my present. As an old guy, he just kept doing crazy shit. He’d fly off to Peru or Belgium by himself to meet friends. He broke his arm ice skating at an age when other guys break an arm trying to open a jelly jar. At a wedding or a bar, if someone dared play Glenn Miller, Bob would grab either Min or the first pretty girl he could find and swing dance. He occasionally suited up as a Keystone Cops clown with the Shriners and rode a tiny minibike. Only much later did I find out he did that at the White House in the 1970s.
I bonded with Bob on his sailboat, which he kept on the Chesapeake Bay. He’d skitter around the boat in high winds and try to teach me what to do. We’d drink a terrible beer called Milwaukee’s Best, which he bought because it was cheaper than any other beer, and eat bologna sandwiches. If there was something that concerned him on the bottom of his boat, he’d dive into the chilled water and check it out. We got caught in a couple of scary storms, and he handled himself as if it wasn’t possible for anything to happen that he couldn’t deal with.
He was, in fact, optimistic about everything, and constantly had a prankster’s gleam in his eye. He was always “fantastic” and everything and everyone around him — his colleagues at Goddard Space Flight Center, the pizza he’d ordered, his little Ford pickup, the damn Milwaukee’s Best — were the tops in the world. He might’ve been old, but from what I could see he approached life like an 18-year-old who had nothing but open road in front of him. That sensibility is what I wanted to rub off on me, forever.
I’m sure it was forged in a hard way. As Bob got old, I realized that he had stories in him that should not be lost — and that I wanted to know. The Library of Congress at the time was asking relatives of World War II veterans to interview them and send in the recordings to be saved. So I sat down with him and turned on the recorder.
During World War II, Bob enlisted to get out of his high school exams. He wound up in the 101st Airborne, on the front lines in Europe. In December 1944, the German army launched an all-out desperation attack in Belgium and France, known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans surrounded Allied troops. Bob and a few men from his company got trapped as a row of German tanks came down a narrow road toward them. Here’s Bob’s telling of a moment that is both hard to imagine yet so very Bob:
“As we were picking off the enemy, I spotted near my (fox)hole an abandon bazooka and one shell that was half buried in the ground. I dug the shell out, straightened the fins and wired it up to the bazooka, taking a guess at the range. I set the sights at 350 yards, hoping to hit in the general area of the tanks, assuming the shell ever left the tube of the bazooka.”
Note: That means the bazooka might have just blown up in the tube and ripped Bob to pieces.
“I knew the bazooka would draw fire from the tanks and give away our position, but I also knew that tanks didn’t like to cope with bazooka fire. It was possible this shot could delay their attack and allow us to get back to our company or get some help.
“When I fired the bazooka, the shell lobbed thru air and looked like a sure miss. To our surpise, the shell hit a Mark 4 tank in its rear bogey wheel and crippled the tank. It also wounded or killed a soldier walking behind the tank. The tank tried to get out of the way, but would only go in a circle. They spotted where the bazooka shell came from and they fired every thing they had. The four of us kept down and it felt like the end of the world had come.”
The outcome: all the other tanks got stuck behind the damaged tank, giving Bob and his men a chance to escape.
Though they didn’t escape unharmed. Bob later had a bullet enter his left cheek, shatter some teeth, and exit through his mouth. On that Christmas, Bob watched his best friend, Jack, get killed. Of all the stories Bob told me, the only time I saw him get upset was when he told me about Jack.
When the war ended, Bob wound up at Hitler’s retreat in Berchtesgaden, Germany — the Eagle’s Nest. Because he could read blueprints — and, I’m sure, because he was so genial — he wound up giving Allied generals tours of the place. Later, when I would visit Bob, he would point to gold-rimmed wine glasses on a shelf and tell me they had been Hitler’s.
Years after that came all the rest — a marriage to Min, two kids, Allison and Rob, and a long career at Goddard making the compact mechanical devices that would carry out experiments on space probes. Bob’s instruments are aboard the Galileo probe to Jupiter, launched in 1989; the Cassini probe to Saturn and Titan, launched in 1997; and the Nozomi probe, launched in 1998.
Bob was a lot of things to a lot of people. I know there were Goddard colleagues who couldn’t imagine work without him. Descendents of a Belgian town Bob helped liberate honored him when he visitied. My mom gets wistful when talking about how he used to tease and joke with her. His immediate family, of course, misses him terribly.
And I have my lens. He and Min were there for me when my kids were born and when I bought my first house. I saw them almost every Christmas for a couple of decades. Through it all I watched him and hoped I could live up to what he represented. I’d never face death on a battlefield or have my fingerprints on outer space, but I wanted to be the kind of person he was — confident, curious, adventurous, and most of all, happy just to be in whatever moment he was in.
In his late-80s, Bob developed Alzheimer’s. I’d visit him as he delcined and he’d barely remember anything anymore, but if I asked him how he was, he’d inevitably say, “Fantastic!”
At the end of the letter I wrote him in 2004, I said: “Anyway, here’s to your 80th. More importantly, you have to keep yourself healthy and stick around for a while, because I need you to show me how to act when I’m 100.”
He didn’t quite fulfill my request. Bob died in January at 91.