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Posted: April 11, 2013 7:25 p.m.

Morgan: The astronaut and the fire truck

An imaginative sort who spies a bright red fire truck parked outside a church might think one of two things: Either the congregants are burning up with the Holy Spirit and keep a fire truck on hand to cool things down once in a while, or the truck is a warning the fires of hell are close unless they toe the line.

Here’s the real story. The fire truck parked at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on Clark Street belonged to Dr. David Simons, longtime member of Good Shepherd, now deceased. When he died in Covington at 87, just over three years ago, he was eulogized in The New York Times, and it’s safe to say not many people from Covington are so honored.

A physician, then an Air Force officer who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1965, Simons was among the earliest to investigate the feasibility of manned space exploration. In August 1957, after years of experimentation with sending animals aloft, Simons himself became the guinea pig and was launched skyward in a vehicle resembling an aluminum phone booth, as described in the Times, and held aloft by a helium balloon.

He reached a height of 19 miles above the earth — some 102,000 feet, breaking a recently set record of 96,000 feet, before descending after 32 hours into a field in South Dakota, without apparent harm or ill effects.

On Sept. 2, 1957, Simons’ photo taken in-flight in his space helmet was featured on the cover of Life magazine. According to the Times, Simons wrote an article for the magazine in which he described halos of dust encircling the globe, a “purplish black” sky and stars, sadly, that “did not twinkle.” His journey had not been just a sightseeing expedition, but rather a series of 25 different experiments designed by astronomers, meteorologists and medical researchers.

The Times article, written by William Grimes, credits Simons for helping put the U.S. “on the road to manned space flight.” Flights by Simons and his colleagues preceded the Mercury capsules and others used by the Soviets, according to quotes from Tom Crouch, the senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. “When you look at the big picture, they were the last step before you go to space,” he said. Simons received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Upon retirement, Simons’ wife Lois, a native of Porterdale, wanted to come back home and so they settled into a house on Monticello Street where Lois cultivated the yard lovingly. She died in 2004, according to Sharon Barker, former secretary at Good Shepherd Episcopal who came to know the Simons well. She also worked for him as his personal assistant for some 10 years.

Around the time of Lois’ death, as Barker recalls, Simons became fixated on global warming and predicted desert-like conditions would soon descend upon us. We were in the midst of a serious drought at the time, she said. He was intent on finding ways to maintain his lush yard, including beautiful magnolia trees, where his wife had invested so much of herself.

He decided he needed a fire truck to hold and transport water and installed a large backyard tank to be filled with water from the fire truck, as well as rain run-off from his gutters. “Besides, I’ve wanted a fire truck ever since I was a child,” Barker recalls him saying. She “volunteered” her husband Ron to locate a fire truck for Simons, and it was shipped from out of state to Covington and housed in a shed Simons had built on his property.

Sometime after Simons obtained the truck, it became clear that filling the truck with water from a lake or a river would not be feasible, so it became a bit of a toy for him. The family enjoyed taking it for a spin around town to celebrate birthdays and Christmas holidays.

At his death, he had left no special instructions for the truck, so one of his daughters, according to Barker, decided to gift the truck to his church. “She thought we might use it for special events or parades or even sell it to benefit the church,” Barker said.

The truck is described as a “fully operational 1983 Mack-CF pumper fire truck” with 51,000 miles and a 1450-gallon tank. “It runs great, and you don’t need a special license to drive it,” said Bill Lane, senior warden of the vestry at Good Shepherd. Four new batteries were recently installed; a generator is included, along with a hose and ladders. It’s on the market for — going, going, gone! — $8,000 that will be used for the church’s ministries when it is sold.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at barbm2158@gmail.com.

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