By Timothy Kays
Tuesday, July 16, was just an average summer day in Stryker, Ohio. Kids were outside playing in-between the popup thunderstorms that slipping through the area…typical. The downtown business district was humming with activity…commonplace. A small crowd gathered in the Oakwood Cemetery to watch as a miniaturized Saturn V rocket was being assembled and erected…humdrum. Yes, July 16 was just another nondescript day in the…WHOA! Wait a minute! Back the truck up there! Rewind it back to that rocket thingy. Saturn what? Where? Why?
Okay, so maybe July 16 was a tad unusual…or a lot. It all depends upon whether or not you have seen the huge black granite rocket in the Cameron plot of the Oakwood Cemetery in Stryker. As the world today looks back fifty years to the Apollo 11 mission that saw the footprints of mankind being embossed into the lunar dust of the moon for the first time, the story behind the Stryker rocket is as impressive as the words etched into its surface. They are, after all, related in more ways than one.
While it’s true that the huge rocket-shaped monolith is not made to actually fly, it bears the names of Jim Cameron and his wife, Yulonda a.k.a. Loni. Eventually, the monument is to be their grave marker. For the time being though, standing at around ten feet tall and weighing in at nearly two tons total, it is arguably the most unique family plot monument to be seen anywhere in the tri-state area. The rocket design did not come to pass by accident, as it provides a quick reference to that which shaped the life of Jim Cameron. Beginning with the F4H Phantom II jet in 1960, Jim set about a three decade-plus career as a NASA engineer.
While there have been many who have counted themselves as a federal employee through NASA, very few can say that they were there to see the United States overtake the Soviet Union in the space race, then go onward and upward to the moon like this Stryker favorite son.
In 1961 and 62, Jim was tasked to serve with the General Dynamics team in Kansas, working on the SM-65 Atlas F-series ICBM, which Jim helped deploy in subterranean missile silos throughout the Great Plains. Work on the SM-65 helped pave the way for Jim to catch on with the Mercury program, the first to put an American into space.
In 1963 and 64 Jim was put on the Aerothermodynamic Elastic Structural Systems Environmental Tests (ASSET) team. Powered by the Thor rocket engine, the ASSET Program experimented with the potential of a reentry vehicle. This tied into his 1964 work on the experimental Atlas powered Boost Glide Reentry Vehicle, or BGRV. From 1965 through 67, Jim was again involved with the manned space program, applying his engineering skills to the Gemini – Titan II program.
When the Gemini program came to an end in 1967, a new era in space travel got underway, and Jim Cameron was there from the infancy of the Saturn-powered Apollo Space Program. Arriving shortly after the flash fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during the test mission known as Apollo 1, Jim celebrated the program that put man upon the moon (Apollo 11), while sweating bullets in the ‘Failure is not an option,’ scenario of Apollo 13.
Jim was one of the engineers who worked upon the docking module for the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1973, and working on the Shuttle Orbiter from 1972-78. Beginning in 1978, Jim was assigned to Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 6 where amongst others, Jim worked on the first of the NASA Space Shuttles, the Enterprise. He was working on what would have been the flight of the first manned polar orbit mission using the Discovery shuttle. The project was shelved after the Challenger explosion in January of 1986.
One of the more amazing aspects of all these milestones in the out-of-this-world career of Jim Cameron is that you can find each of these stations etched into the black granite of the rocket now situated in the Oakwood Cemetery. Although it is mounted in the back of the cemetery, the rocket is still easily visible from Chase Street.
Once all the parts were in place, it took a four-man crew from Defiance Memorials four hours to erect the monument. By comparison, that was the easy part compared to the road to getting it to Stryker. “It took us well over a year just with revisions, and tweaking the lettering, getting the text that Mr. Cameron wanted exact,” said Mike Faehnle, who led the four man crew from Defiance Memorials. “He had some changes as well, so the whole process took roughly about a year. The granite itself took about six months to arrive, and that’s all part of that year time.”
What does it mean to create a monument as unique as this? Mike said, “We’re absolutely honored to build a project like this, as well as all the monuments we do, because this truly tells a story in stone about an individual’s life. We don’t do monuments so much that people pass away, we do them because they lived, and we tell the story about their lives in monuments.”
“It’s so important for future generations to know about their parents, or grandparents, or a loved one. So it means an awful lot for us to do, especially projects like this because this is so much more personalized than most of the monuments we do, although I don’t want to understate the simple ones that we do, because those are just as important to family members as something as stately and unique as this is. They’re all pretty special, but obviously this one is even more so, just because there’s so much that went into this.”
In any business, success is measured by the satisfaction of the customer. In this case, Mike Faehnle and his Defiance Memorials team can declare this mission a success. Jim Cameron put his seal of approval on it by saying, “I love it! They did it to my specifications. They did an excellent job, and I love their work. I can’t find a thing wrong with it.”
If the engineer who worked on the original project fifty years ago approves, you’ve got to put it firmly in the win column. The next time that you are in the Stryker area, stop on by the Oakwood Cemetery and see this magnificent monolith for yourself. It is definitely one giant leap for monument crafting.
Timothy can be reached at email@example.com