On Three Dream Careers

Most kids play “What do I wanna be when I grow up” games. These usually take the form of some glamorous profession (I was going to star in the NBA then fall back on an Indiana Jones-like career making amazing archaeological discoveries in my retirement from the league). Here are three examples of these types of what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up dream careers coming true.

  1. Soldier-Jonathan wanted to be a soldier beginning in his early teens. He dreamed of being a US Navy Seal, the toughest of the tough. Towards that end, he began training at age 16 for the difficult indoctrination required for that role. He enlisted in 2002, completed his Seal training, and was sent to the Middle East on over 100 covert missions during the Iraq War. There, he became a hero, rescuing wounded comrades and winning the Bronze Star and the Silver Star. Over the past 20+ years, Jonathan completed Officer Candidate School and had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Navy.
  2. Doctor-Young had exemplary grades in high school. Advanced Placement classes were easy for him. In addition, he was on the swimming water polo teams. After an undergraduate degree from the University of San Diego in 2012, Young was admitted to the prestigious Harvard Medical School where he also excelled. From anything in the medical profession to choose, Young decided to specialize in Emergency Medical Care, and, after his internship at Massachusetts General Hospital (I wonder if he met Dr. Charles E. Winchester, III?), Young finished his medical education. His supervisor during his time as an intern and the head of the hospital ER, Dr. David Brown, said about Young, “He is absolutely fearless–which a good ER doctor needs to be–a remarkable young man, fiercely committed.”
  3. Astronaut-Kim remembers being the shy kid growing up who lacked the confidence he saw in others. However, he dreamed big. He majored in mathematics in college and received his degree. After his college career, Kim took a chance and applied to NASA’s astronaut program. But he knew that he would have to also learn to fly, so he took flying lessons and completed his solo flight in the late 2010s. Out of 18,000 applicants, he was chosen for astronaut training. He entered NASA’s program in August 2017. Kim completed two years of training (training in technical and operational instruction in International Space Station systems, Extravehicular Activities (EVA) Operations, T-38 flight training, robotics, physiological training, expeditionary training, field geology, water and wilderness survival training, and Russian language proficiency training) in 2019. He will be one of the astronauts going to the moon later this decade. 

Dream jobs and career paths, right?

Most people never follow their dreams, much less follow such amazing career paths such as these three descriptions.

Would it surprise you if I told you that the three people described to you came from the same Korean immigrant family in the United States?

And would you believe me if I said that all three of these descriptions are of the same person–39 year old Jonathan “Jonny” Young Kim?

On an Famous Golf Shot

The Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, has always been a marker for spring for me. The beautifully manicured greens and fairways, the gorgeous azaleas in full flower, and the pageantry of the donning of the famous Green Jacket by the winner represent the popularity of the sport of golf in the United States and around the world. In 1971, a man named Charles Coody recorded his only career major tournament win by besting Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller for the victory by two strokes.

In an ordinary year, that would have been the major golf news of the year, but a golfing amateur upstaged Coody in February that year. This amateur’s name was Alan, and his impact on golf is still celebrated today. We may not remember much about that 1971 Masters Tournament, but we certainly remember what Alan did that year. In fact, it is said that Alan hit the most famous golf shot ever made.

The shot Alan made was with a 6-iron, a club that was made by the sporting goods company Wilson and the style of club was called a Dynapower. And that’s part of the story. You see, it wasn’t that Alan made a golf shot that was accurate or that defied the laws of physics or bounced around and settled in the hole or even that he made a hole-in-one. No, Alan’s 6-iron golf shot is significant because of the distance he hit the golf ball with that 6-iron.

Now, most amateurs would hit a 6-iron about 150 yards on a good day. Not Alan. After a couple of practice swings, Alan addressed the ball and took a rather unorthodox swing at the ball; he hit it one-handed. Please know that the average golf shot with a driver (the larger clubs) stays in the air for about 6 or 7 seconds. Alan’s ball took off…and was airborne for over 30 seconds. In fact, the shot Alan took was measured by one scientist as having traveled one mile.

Yes. One mile.

Alan passed away in 1998, but, before he died, he donated the 6-iron with which he hit his famous shot to the United States Golf Association Museum in Liberty Corner, N.J. The club can be seen there today, and it is one of the most popular exhibits at the museum. People want to see the club that made the most famous shot in history.

After all, it’s not everyday you see a golf club that astronaut Alan Shepard used to hit a ball on the moon.

On a Test Animal

The scientists named her Barker.

She was found wandering the streets of the city and was quite obviously a stray. She was also quite obviously a mutt. Oh, she had some physical characteristics of a Samoyed, and some of a Husky, and there was definitely a bit of Terrier in there as well. Ah, but she was a tiny thing. She weighed only about 12 pounds.

And that’s why it was somewhat comical that such loud barking yelps came from a girl this small. Of course, they had to name her Barker. The best that the scientists could determine, Barker was about three years old. Her ears stood straight up, except at the top tips which folded down. Ah, she was a real cutie.

The scientists liked using stray dogs from the city streets because they felt that those dogs had been conditioned to extremes of temperature and of hunger. Their experiments needed dogs that could withstand both. Now, as an animal lover, I will go on record as being against the use of animals in scientific experiments on principle. However, this was the mid-1950s, and the use of animals in scientific experimentation was commonplace. Sadly, the experiments that were being performed on the street dogs would end up killing them.

One of the scientists who was conducting the experiments developed a soft spot for Barker. He would scratch her ears and whisper to her so that the other scientists could not hear his sweet nothings. He would put his head on hers and quietly say that, in another life, he would love to have her at his house to play with his children, and to watch her grow up with them. In fact, on the evening before the experiment that would lead to her death, he did, indeed, take Barker home. She and the kids had a wonderful time, running and playing throughout the house. Of course, the kids were giggling, and Barker was, well, barking. “She was so charming,“ he would say later. Knowing her fate, the scientist wanted to do something nice for her.

I wish this story had a happier ending. It is true that all stories involving dogs end sadly. When you bring a puppy into your life, the result is going to be heartache because nothing is forever.

The next day, Barker began the experiment that would take her life. And because of that experiment, she would go down in history. Or, in this case, perhaps, up.

You see, Barker is what her name is in English.

You know her better by her Russian name, Laika, and as the first animal from earth to go into space.

On a Field Trip

In the late 1960s, I was in the first years of elementary school in north Alabama. The school system of our city was top-notch; the high school offered advanced placement courses (even courses on anatomy for students who wanted to pursue medicine) and the board of education was always erecting new facilities every few years. Field trips were part and parcel of the curriculum as teachers sought to expand our minds by making our classrooms not confined by the halls of the buildings but designed to include the wider world.

Thus, in 1970, the kids at East Elementary School in Cullman, Alabama, boarded buses and traveled about an hour north to Huntsville to see the newly opened NASA Space Flight Center. As a child of the ’60s, I remember growing up with the marvel of space travel on TV and in the news magazines and newspapers. As a 7 year old, I distinctly remember seeing the live feed from the moon. And, as Armstrong made his “giant leap,” I leapt with him.

NASA’s operations in Huntsville brought the world to north Alabama. Scientists and engineers from across the globe came there and made the city their hometown. It remains one of the state’s most diverse and forward-thinking cities because of this influx of talent and international perspective.

The museum there remains one of my favorites. For the young and impressionable me, to see the massive Saturn V rockets, to interact with some of the artifacts and displays there made me feel great pride in the accomplishments not only of my country but also of my species. As I grew older, one of my regrets is that my family moved from that area before I could go to Space Camp there.

We all have vignettes from our past that stick out to us about an event or a situation that probably should not be in our long-term memories but yet are there, fixed, and often recalled and mused over for the rest of our lives. There is one such strong memory of that day that stands above the others for some reason.

You see, as we excitedly filed off the buses and began to make our way into the large museum facility, the door was held open by a nice older gentleman in a suit who had a neatly combed head of hair. As he did so, the thing that has stuck with me for over fifty years is how he greeted us as we entered.

“Welcome, children,” Wernher von Braun said, smilingly.

On a Wheelman

Mike sat in the vehicle alone. His two compadres were doing the job while he manned the “getaway car.” As his chums busied themselves, hurriedly gathering their loot and carrying out their tasks, Mike circled,  running all the worst case scenarios through his head. What if there was trouble? What if they got stuck? What if they couldn’t get out? He tried not to think about it. His buddies were counting on him to be there when they were done. But waiting by himself in the getaway vehicle made him feel, as he said later, more alone than anyone has been since Adam.

The three had practiced and practiced and practiced for every possible scenario. They had spent years working through the job. The idea was that more preparation meant a better chance of success. The trio had not simply gone through practice runs until they got it right; they had practiced until they could not get it wrong. Like Danny Ocean in the movies, they even worked on mockups of the scene. Each man knew his role. They had experience. No, this wasn’t their first time doing this.

And, so, Mike brought the vehicle right around one more time and waited. “What will I tell their families if they don’t make it out?“ He thought. “I don’t want to be the guy, the only guy who lives through this.“ Again, he circled.  No sign of them.  It shouldn’t be taking this long. They should be back by now. He even contemplated going to get them directly, but that wasn’t part of the plan.  Stick to the plan, Mike told himself. Stick to the plan.

Thirty times Mike circled.

You might think that, by this time, the average wheelman would begin to give up and try to make good his own escape. But not Mike. No, in fact, he felt a heightened, “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.”  Suddenly, on the final pass, he saw them. Mike’s two pals we’re coming towards him as quickly as they could.  Just as they had planned it, Mike did not even have to stop to let his buddies enter the vehicle.

Mike tried to hide his relief and excitement once his buddies were inside. As he steered away, he asked calmly, “How did it go?“ His buddy Neil gave him a thumbs up while other member of the trio, Buzz, grinned broadly.

That’s when Commander Michael Collins radioed Houston that Apollo 11 was returning to earth.