On Saturday, November 29, my Uncle Clayton Bushnell passed away in St. George, Utah, at the age of 90. I thought I’d share some of what I know of his life history, as it’s fascinating and tells you what kind of a man he was.
Clayton Bushnell was born September 27, 1924, in Meadow, Utah, to Edward Dame “Dee” and Myrtle Bracken Bushnell. His mother died from “chronic valvular heart disease” when he was 4 years old, and his father was unable to take care of him, so he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Provo. There he was treated as a hired hand and a burden, at best, sleeping on the porch when the weather was warm and in the kitchen in the winter. In his words, his aunt and uncle treated him as “not one of their own.” He never celebrated birthdays or received Christmas gifts. He recalled getting ready to go to a family reunion once, when his aunt said, “Why are you getting ready? You are not part of the family.” He spent summers in Meadow with loving grandparents, and he described these visits as “coming up for air.” His aunt and uncle told him he had a “weak heart,” like his mother, so he would probably die young. He was also told he was stupid and worthless and would never amount to anything.
He was a mischievous child, and he and his friends got into a lot of trouble. He saved his money to buy a BB gun, and then he and his friends figured out how to make the gun into a more potent weapon. They would steal eggs from the neighbor’s hen house and then exchange the eggs for .22-caliber bullets. He had discovered that the bullets fit perfectly into the middle cylinder of an empty spool of thread. They would insert the bullet into the spool, and then lash the spool onto the end of the BB gun with wire. Firing a BB at the bullet was just enough to trigger it, converting a child’s BB gun into an effective, if not predictable or accurate, rifle. He also told of using a pair of pliers to crimp the fuel line of the local sheriff’s car so that, no matter how hard the sheriff stepped on the gas, he could go only very slowly, and the boys could outrun him every time. Some nights Clayton and his friends would go to a neighbor’s haystack, under which the neighbor kept a jug of homemade raisin wine. The boys would sit under the stars taking turns sipping from the jug. When they finished, they would replace the wine they had drunk with their own urine so the neighbor wouldn’t realize he’d been robbed.
He attended Brigham Young High School in Provo. At age 18 in 1942, he was drafted into the Army. Tests revealed high intelligence and an aptitude for science and engineering, so he was sent to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied engineering. After a year, the Army decided it needed infantry more than engineers, so he was sent to the Pacific as part of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 381st Regiment, 96th Infantry Division. He saw action in the Philippines during the invasion of Leyte and Samar. He told me once about seeking shelter for the night under a house that was built on stilts. It wasn’t until they had settled in that they heard movement and a conversation in Japanese and smelled cooking rice coming from the house. Right above them were Japanese soldiers. They waited until the Japanese were asleep and quietly slipped away into the night.
Later he took part in the invasion of Okinawa. Of the 252 men who landed on the island, only 36 survived. He told me that, out of 28 in his platoon, only 2 came home alive. During a battle for a village where the Japanese were entrenched, he saw a terrified woman carrying a child and running through the field of fire. She was killed, and he ran out to retrieve her child, which he took to a safe place. As he was returning to his position, he was hit through the left arm, the bullet severing an artery and lodging near his heart. As he lay bleeding, a shell or grenade landed near him and blew him some 30 feet down the mountain. He said that when he awoke the sole of his boot rested on his chest, facing his chin. He drifted in and out of consciousness and woke up only when another soldier tried to cut off his dog tag to put on a body bag. He said, “I scared the hell out of him.” The soldier asked if he wanted him to pray for him, and he said, “Hell, no! I want you to get me a medic!”
He was hospitalized for more than a year, and then he was released from the hospital in Los Angeles with no money and no job prospects. He told me that he went from business to business trying to find work with no success. He looked up the local Mormon bishop in the phone book and went to his house for help. The bishop gave him “a short pep talk about raising himself by his bootstraps” and sent him on his way. As he said to me, “I was too ashamed to tell him I hadn’t eaten in 3 days.” Eventually, he told a store owner he would sweep the store for a little food, and the man took pity on him. He slept on a cot in the back of the store and worked there helping out.
Later Clayton attended Stanford University and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in rocket systems design. There he met Mary Fisher, my mother’s older sister, who was attending UCLA. They met when he was asked to help decorate for an LDS singles’ dance. My Aunt Joyce noticed him doing illustrations for the walls and struck up a conversation with him. She thought her sister Mary might like him, so she introduced them. I’ve heard more than a few people say they have never seen anyone more in love than Clayton and Mary. When Mary took him home to meet her parents, Eldred and Thora Fisher, my grandmother instantly took him into her heart and into the family. She loved him and treated him as if he were her own son. He told my mother, “Sometimes I’m not sure who I fell in love with first: Mary or Mother.” He always said Grandma Fisher was the mother he never had known.
He and Mary were married in the St. George LDS Temple in 1952 and settled into life in Los Angeles, where he worked designing rocket systems for military and space programs. My grandparents lived a humble life, as my grandpa managed a grocery store and my grandma stayed at home raising the children. Grandpa was a pretty straight-arrow Mormon (most of the time), and once he became angry when Grandma bought real rum to put in the egg nog for Christmas. After arguing about it, Grandma got frustrated and dumped the whole bottle in. Only she and Clayton drank the egg nog, and Grandpa and Aunt Mary were livid. But Grandpa loved Clayton, too. One Sunday morning, Grandpa said he had to “check the freezers at the store” and invited Clayton to come with him. To Clayton’s surprise, Grandpa drove instead to a coffee shop, where the waitress asked, “The usual, Mr. Fisher?” and served Grandpa a cup of coffee. It would be a regular outing for both over the years.
In September 1953 Clayton and Mary’s first son, Edward Douglas, was born. Less than 2 months later, Clayton received a call at work from a distressed neighbor who said only, “Come home. The baby is down.” Eddie died of what the doctors labeled “crib death.” In December 1954, a daughter was born, Cady Lynn. Soon afterward, Cady was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a progressive disease that was always fatal in those days. He and Mary purchased a modest home in Northridge, California, with an air conditioner, as he said he wanted Cady to be comfortable. I remember him talking about Cady chasing seagulls on the beach and asking for a “paco” (popsicle) as if it had been just yesterday. She passed away in September 1956. It was later determined that Eddie had died of the same disease. Clayton told me that he had blamed himself, as he remembered his relatives telling him he had a weak heart, and he thought he had passed it on to his children.
Four more children were born: Jan, Diane, Glenn, and Bev. By this time Clayton was designing rocket systems for the Mercury and Apollo programs. A seventh child, Douglas, was born in 1968. He too was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and died in 1971. Uncle Clayton told me how he had gone to the hospital alone that last day, as Aunt Mary couldn’t bear it. He rocked Dougy in his arms as he passed away. Clayton laid his son in the crib and then pounded his fists on the wall, crying out to God, asking why he had taken him away.
My parents moved us out to the San Fernando Valley in June 1971, and we were now only about 15 minutes away from our aunt and uncle and cousins. My parents went out to dinner or a movie with Clayton and Mary at least once a month (it sometimes seemed like it was every weekend), and they and our cousins came over often to swim in the pool. My mom had wanted to buy furniture for the house, but dad said we should have a vote with all the kids, hence the pool. We had folding camp chairs for seating in our family room for a few years. I think the pool was a wise decision, as we became very close to our cousins.
Sometime in the 1970s, Uncle Clayton became involved in a German venture to launch rockets from Zaire in Africa. They made a valiant attempt, but political instability and lack of practical knowledge by the German owners doomed it to failure. Days after Uncle Clayton left Africa, the camp was attacked and many of the personnel were killed. He then started his own company, Space Vector. His company was contracted by former Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton of Space Services, Inc., to design the Conestoga I rocket, which was the first civilian rocket to be successfully launched in US history. The Conestoga I launched September 9, 1982, from Matagorda Island, Texas. The launch almost didn’t happen, as the FAA and NASA were reluctant to grant permission to launch until literally just a few minutes before launch time. Uncle Clayton was quoted not long ago in the paper saying, “I could have put it in orbit. I wish I had. That would have given NASA fits!”
We spent a lot of time with Aunt Mary, Uncle Clayton, and our cousins while I was growing up. It was like having a second family, and Clayton and Mary were much closer to us than most aunts and uncles would be. I never knew until many years later about the day I was born. My esophagus hadn’t formed correctly, and it had attached to my trachea. I would not have survived without major corrective surgery. My dad called Clayton, distraught and not knowing what to do. At the time my dad was a full-time student at USC finishing his coursework for a PhD in electrical engineering. He worked one day a week at an aircraft company, who paid him a small stipend to study. Needless to say, they had no money for major medical bills. Uncle Clayton said he and Aunt Mary knelt and prayed, and then he withdrew all the money from their savings account and took it to my dad at the hospital. He told me he knew what it was like to have an ill child and feel so helpless as a parent. I will always be grateful to him for that.
Uncle Clayton liked to remind me of the time my dad, my 3 brothers, and I went out to the desert with him and my cousin Glenn to learn how to shoot when I was about 6 years old. It got very cold that night, and I asked if I could get into his warm Army sleeping bag with him. He said I kicked and wiggled all night, and he didn’t get a wink of sleep.
When I was in 4th grade or so, I won a writing contest at school, and Uncle Clayton asked if he could read my story. He told me it was so good he wanted to buy a copy, so he gave me a silver dollar, and I wrote out a copy for him. It was my first paid writing job, and it was the first time I felt like I had a talent of any kind. I might not have become a writer without that silver dollar and the confidence he gave me.
We learned that the cardiomyopathy was genetic and affected a large number of our extended family. My mom’s youngest sister, Flora, died in 1972 at age 32, and my Uncle Don died in 1975 at age 48. My Grandma Fisher died when I was 11 years old, and she also had the disease. I think her death was as hard for Clayton as it would have been losing his own mother. At the time my Grandpa Fisher had been showing signs of dementia, which worsened significantly after Grandma’s death. Grandpa reconnected with a woman he had known in high school, and he convinced her he was wealthy and would take her to Hawaii. They married and ended up in Los Angeles, where my mom and Aunt Mary quickly realized she was a little off her rocker as well. The family tried to figure out what to do. Once while Grandpa was at Clayton’s house, a man rang the doorbell to deliver the Rolls-Royce Grandpa had ordered.
Grandpa and his new wife stayed with us for a while, and one day my mom left me alone with them, telling me to keep an eye on them and make sure they didn’t leave. Naturally, they weren’t going to listen to an 11-year-old boy, so they left. I was terrified that they’d get into trouble (and so would I). I was sitting on the porch wondering what my mom would say when suddenly Uncle Clayton pulled into the driveway. He asked what was wrong, and when I told him, he said, “Well, there’s no use sitting around here doing nothing but worrying. Let’s go!” He drove me to a place called “Nosh-o-Rama,” which was, as the name suggests, a Jewish buffet. He said many times over the years that he didn’t do it for me but because he enjoyed seeing how much food I could put away. Despite what he said, he took a genuinely scared boy and made him feel safe and loved. I will never forget it.
Clayton was a terrible tease, as all of his kids will tell you. He always called me “Big Bad John” with that deep voice of the old Jimmy Dean song. He also joked a lot about the Fisher family’s ability to have a lot of children. He loved his children, though he wasn’t a perfect father. He spoiled his grandchildren rotten, however. I remember going to a family reunion and looking out the back window of our van as we drove and seeing Clayton’s Suburban, which was jerking back and forth. He had his very young grandson Curt on his lap and was letting him steer.
Just after the launch of the Conestoga rocket, my Aunt Mary noticed that her heart was racing for no reason, so she went to the doctor, who told her she was in advanced congestive heart failure from cardiomyopathy. She died a few days later in November 1982. After her death I received a birthday card from her, which she had sent from her hospital bed. That tells you what kind of person she was. I will never forget those days and the Thanksgiving dinner we had at our house. We were all overwhelmed with grief, but no one more than Uncle Clayton. He wrote later that he just couldn’t put his heart into his work after that, and he left work with the Conestoga.
Clayton married his second wife, Gloria, in 1984, and they bought a house in Thousand Oaks, California.
When I got engaged to my wife, Uncle Clayton was the first member of our family she met besides my younger brothers. I remember him telling her she had better be aware of what she was getting herself into, as people in the Fisher family tended to have very large families. I remember him chuckling about how our family was “a fruitful bough, whose branches grow over the wall,” and that Fishers got pregnant just by looking at each other funny. Nancy didn’t know what to make of him, but he made her feel at ease, and he welcomed her into our family with a lot of love.
Later he retired, and he and Gloria built a home in St. George, Utah. We were living in Utah at the time, so we always stopped to see them on our way to and from California. He was always very sweet with my children, and he liked telling them stories about what I was like as a child, such as my being a “bottomless pit” because I could eat more than my weight in a meal. Once he took us to the Chuck-A-Rama buffet in St. George because he wanted to see if any of my kids could eat like I did when I was a boy. He said my record still stood.
About 15 years ago he decided to write his life history, and he asked me to edit it. It was a real treat to learn so much about his life, and I was honored to help him. I thought it turned out pretty well, though the printer made a mistake and left all the crop marks in the book. Oh, well. I think he appreciated it.
He was retired, but not really, as he did consulting work until he was well into his 80s, and he is listed as a contributing author on a technical paper in 2004 about a “floating robot” designed for NASA research, when he was 80 years old. He worked from home but still traveled a lot. I remember him telling about a time he had to make a last-minute trip to Seattle for a meeting with Boeing, so he asked Gloria to pack him a carry-on bag. While he was waiting in the line for the security check-in, he opened the bag and discovered a loaded handgun. When he later asked why it was in there, Gloria replied, “I thought you might need it.”
Clayton was an author and published two books: Centurion King: The Battle for Okinawa and Close In, a thriller based on some of his experiences. In 2010 he was honored at the University of Utah’s Veteran’s Day commemoration. As far as I know, he never earned an official degree from college, but he became one of the foremost designers of rocket systems in the world. He literally was a rocket scientist. But he was always a humble farm boy from Utah and had the accent to prove it. He was a loving husband and father and one of the kindest, most generous and big-hearted people I have ever known. My life is so much richer because he was a part of it. His life was a blessing to more people than I could ever count, and we will all miss him.