A short work of faction by Michele Mannion

Three Degrees Away From the Moon: How one man moved from a World War II sub-chaser to MIT lab

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 9:45am

He tried to sit comfortably in the chair, his hands folded in front of him at his waist, but it was difficult to stop his foot from tapping against the linoleum floor. It was Louis Pierre Rainville’s second visit to this room; the first visit was his interview that took place 14 months earlier in April of 1958.

Dr. Davenport, the lab supervisor, would be the only consistent “interviewer” today. After being hired, he recalled how Davenport teased him about his cover letter for the radar technician position. Frances, his wife, had written the cover letter for him, her stellar penmanship known far and wide for its meticulous, exacting curves and classic conveyance of formality. 

“How could we not hire someone whose cover letter was written by God?” Davenport had joked. 

He hoped Davenport’s general light-hearted manner would be in effect today, to the degree it could be. Today was serious, no doubts there, and “Dr. Serious,” Robert Kingston, would be joining the “interview.” He found Kingston’s intensity off-putting and not entirely necessary. Yes, the work was often intense, but in his mind, the intensity was offset by the prospect of discovery and intellectual challenge. 

The final member of the “interview” trinity was Gordon Pettengill, a newly minted Ph.D. in physics. Pettengill was likeable, approachable, brilliant, and like most of the staff in the lab, passionate about his work. 

At five minutes before 1 p.m., the trinity arrived. The austerity of the room was matched by the mood of the three men who sat down across from him. He was as prepared as he’d ever be, having spent the past two months prepping and cramming.

He received his radio (radar) detection training in the Navy, joining the service in 1944 at the age of 18. Initially slated to join the Army, his test results in electrical aptitude caught the attention of Navy recruiters, so off to the Navy he went. 

He served on “sub chasers,” ships that sniffed out German U-boats as they traversed the Atlantic. His task was radar detection, not sonar, since sub chasers needed to also monitor the location of above surface ships and aircraft, not just U-boats.

Right on time at 1 p.m., the equivalent of a doctoral defense in physics and electrical engineering commenced.

For the next two hours, he defended his knowledge in subjects such as long-range radar, digital communication, and ionosphere radar signals. After the initial 2 hours, the dissection of his knowledge was ramped up, with the trinity of Davenport, Kingston, and Pettengill bombarding him with a more intense line of questioning. He jumped down the scientific rabbit holes with them, playing Alice to their Cheshire Cats, but never out witted. 

At 4 p.m., as he awaited the results of his “defense” outside in the hallway, he considered how proud his French-Canadian parents would be, if he could tell them the nature of his work, which he most definitely could not-- especially if he were mustered into this lab!

It was a long way from his childhood memory of his father resoling his shoes with old tire rubber from the scrap yard. Heck, he’d been thankful he had shoes at all, given how bleak things had been during the Depression in Salem, Massachusetts.

He thought of his children and no opportunity for Show and Tell of Dad’s work at school. Ah well, he told himself, his children were still too young for his work to hold any real fascination. He was fortunate his eldest, David, was more interested in sports than science, but he also suspected that would change in the foreseeable future if what was dreamt and imagined came to fruition. 

After 20 minutes, Davenport opened the door to the “interview” room and invited him in. 

“Mr. Rainville, even with just your associate’s degree, we are impressed with your substantial and steadfast knowledge of radar technology. We are pleased to convey you have met the criteria for engineer status at M.I.T./Lincoln Laboratory. We invite you to help us map the lunar surface of the moon, so we may land a man upon its surface!”