Sunday, August 19, 2012

When things get tough, I think of Ham

By John L. Guerra

Ham the chimp shows the depth of his
fear in the moments before experiencing
a level of hell and confusion greater than
his species had ever known.

The Cameroon jungle of 1953 was a vast, unspoiled tract under a tall green canopy. Crawling vines, broad-leafed, fruit-bearing plants, and rich loamy soil under rotting leaves supported a wide range of animals from tiny insects, tree frogs, snakes, wild boar, thousands of bird species, and mammals, including monkeys and chimpanzees.
In July of that year, a tribe of chimps welcomed a new baby, a male youngster who would one day travel farther and faster than any living thing on Earth. The chimpster (not the actual term for a young chimp, but I like the sound of it) lived peacefully in his first years in the safety of his troop. Like other young chimps, he clung to his mom and learned how to avoid a pounding by older males and kept his wits about him to stay out of the jaws of jaguars and other large predators.
The youngster, however, didn't smell the danger of a man-made trap, designed specifically to lure him in with fruit. The youngster was captured and taken from his home by animal trappers.

Ends up in Miami

After a series of exotic ports, strange cities, and foreign oceans, the chimp ended up at Rare Bird Farm in Miami. Cameroon and his family were not forgotten by the chimp. Chimpanzees are but a few mitochondria from being human and maintain their earliest memories until the day they die, and they live many years. He must have yearned for his homeland as he was moved from place to  place until finally, he ended up at the newly minted launch pads of Cape Canaveral. It was there that U.S. Navy officers and scientists were designing a way to put a human being in space.
The chimp was officially named No. 65, which differentiated him from at least 64 other chimps who were candidates to be the first chimp to ride a rocket into space. The candidates were not given chimp names because if the space agency accidentally killed one of them, the public would find it less disturbing to hear about the death of Chimp No. 24 than a "Jo-Jo" or a "Bongo."

Chimp most certainly perished

He was trained by using fruit as a carrot, as it were. They put him in all kinds of contraptions that turned him, spun him, lifted him, dropped him, and left him in the dark. Until the blinking lights, klaxons, and other noises were blasted at him. When his training was over, he was dressed in a small space suit and helmet, outfitted with a urine tube and diaper, and strapped into a chimp-sized seat. He was bolted into a small capsule on the top of some Atlas rockets and launched into space. The shaking and rumbling of takeoff must have raised No. 65's heart rate beyond belief as his screams of fear filled the tiny capsule. As he began his slow descent toward the atmosphere, scientists on the ground kept their fingers crossed. They watched the needles and gauges as friction began to heat up the bottom of the capsule after it re-entered the atmosphere. But something went wrong and the capsule hit the atmosphere much, much faster than the planned rate of re-entry, leading most of the mission control scientists to believe they had sent their chimp to a fiery death. As the craft began to break apart, pieces began to land on lawns in Texas and other states.

Chimp in deep trouble

Not only was the craft coming apart, but ground control miscalculated the capsule's re-entry path and it went more than a hundred miles off course. When it parachuted to the ground, they had no idea where to look for it. There was no doubt in most people's minds that the test chimp was dead. In an insane gesture of hope, one searcher brought along an orange to feed No. 65 in case he somehow survived.
They found the capsule 135 miles off course. As searchers pulled the hatch open, the chimp, who the world soon learned was named "Ham," calmly grabbed the orange and began to eat it.

Dealing with fear

Whenever fear begins to creep into my life, I remember Ham, the little chimp who was taken from his family and familiar surroundings, shipped all over the place and then shot through the atmosphere in a roaring blaze. Life is not easy. We lose good jobs, watch family members die, and suffer other calamities that leave us not knowing what to do next. A big one for me is fear; when my world turns upside down, I can become immobile. I've learned that calling friends and family gives me a foundation for action. I just call to chat, and if the time is right, I ask for guidance. Another tool is to list those things for which I'm grateful.
I don't know how Ham's experience changed him, maybe not at all, but if you're going through a tough period of your life right now, think of the diminutive chimp who, through events beyond his control ended up in an out-of-control space capsule with no way out.
You can do what he did, which was to hold on. Things will get better. They did for Ham. He survived his ordeal and lived the rest of his years quietly and safely in a zoo, siring youngsters of his own. He died at the age of 50 in 1983.


  1. ham - meaning "hot or burnt" in arabic. they named him this AFTER he had blasted through the atmosphere twice? poor little bugger.

  2. Liz: Isn't that funny? That's real irony.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. Great, great reminder of how to keep things in perspective. I'd never heard the story of Ham (other than the very basics about the monkey in space). I really enjoyed reading it!

  4. Ray McKnight

    The fate of all chimps used in research - is an echo of our barbaric nature - the reason for our species' collapse. [Relativity: The future is written in the past!]