In The Pipeline: One small step for a columnist

Houston, we have a problem. Or at least, we had a problem. That was until a little mystery involving outer space, the Apollo program and telephone poles was solved earlier this week.

A couple of months ago, my friend, Huntington Beach Marine Safety Chief Kyle Lindo, wrote me with a suggestion for a column after seeing this on the official Huntington Beach website:

"Huntington Beach contains a major installment of one of the state's largest employers, Boeing, formerly McDonnell Douglas. A number of installments on the Boeing campus were originally constructed to service the Apollo Program, most notably the production of the S-IVB upper stage for the Saturn IB and Saturn V rockets, and some nearby telephone poles are still marked 'Apollo Dedicated Mission Control Line.'"

Lindo wondered, as I did after reading, if these poles still existed. And just what exactly they were. Presumably some sort of direct, private contact to Mission Control from Huntington Beach, but it sounded interesting.

So I started researching, or shall I say, driving around Huntington Beach, in the Boeing neighborhood primarily, looking at telephone poles. Lots of telephone poles. But nothing.

Oddly, searching for information online revealed nothing — except that the original passage has been copied and pasted numerous times into many other sites that talk about Huntington Beach history — with no further explanation.

I emailed a group of locals with a general question about any information leading to these telephone poles. I received many responses, most to the effect of, "We know nothing about these but please let us know what you discover."

My friend Chris Jepsen, an archivist at the Orange County Archives and terrific local expert, wrote, "I've heard that line about the telephone poles, but I've never been able to verify it. Very cool if true, but who knows?"

And I received this from Janis Mantini, a former Boeing employee: "Chris, we looked all over campus for poles with these markings and we were never able to find them. We think it might be an urban legend. We heard this story [at] the end of the year 2011 and our facilities guys were all over looking for them but none were located."

OK. Finally. At least a potential bit of information. But information that may suggest they never even existed!

In the interim, as I researched, poked and prodded, I thought I might reach out to an old high school classmate — one who if asked, "What are you, a rocket scientist?", can actually answer, "Yes."

Jim O'Kane is a real-life rocket scientist and the general manager of Seahorse Systems, LLC. He's also extremely good at making complex things seems simple. So I asked him about these telephone poles.

O'Kane explained that Douglas Aircraft was the prime contractor for the third stage of the Saturn V during the Apollo missions and that the people at the Huntington Beach office knew everything about the construction and operation of their part of the vehicle. He added that the experts here needed to be available in real time for any emergency or problem that came up during the quarter-million-mile trip to the moon. 

He went on to explain that long before we had satellite phones and fiber optic cables, there were only hard-wired copper phone and data lines connecting business offices to Western Electric phone switches. NASA built as a requirement into all its prime contractors' agreements that the primary designers would need to provide 24/7 availability for Mission Control staff in Houston to talk instantly to various "back rooms" full of hardware engineers across the country. Those hard-wired lines were vital to analyze mission data immediately during a flight.

O'Kane added, "Noting this on telephone poles was no doubt a great marketing idea for Douglas. I think an example of getting in touch with the back room at Douglas was during the Apollo 6 mission, an unmanned test of the Saturn V that was trouble-plagued through the entire launch. I'm sure those dedicated phone lines were humming as the launch vehicle did almost everything it could to tear itself apart during liftoff. There were probably a lot of strongly worded engineers' opinions zipping over those lines that day."

Interestingly, O'Kane said that making a phone call back then would have taken 10 to 12 seconds to connect and so these dedicated lines existed so that there would be no delay in getting answers. Sort of like the audio equivalent of closed-circuit television. These lines were separate from the normal switched lines of the regular Bell System so as not to interrupt any local service.

OK, so now, even if I never saw one of these poles, at least I knew what they had been used for.

As I was putting this story to bed last week, I received this email from Jill Hardy, a teacher at Marina High School who had received my original outreach: "Chris, I asked my Marina students if they had seen one of these signs. Today one came to me and told me he found one. It is at Edwards and McFadden in front of the Mormon Church."

My son and I went to the site at once. And sure enough, there it was. On the telephone pole, an artifact from the Apollo era. Yellow letters on black bands of metal affixed to the pole: "Apollo Bolsa Team."

The student who noticed this is a freshman named Michael Bonomo. I called first to thank him, and then ask him how it caught his eye. He told me as his grandmother drove him to school one day, they were stopped at the red light and his eyes drifted up. Remembering Hardy's challenge from almost two months ago, he realized he had made contact.

I drove along McFadden in search of others, but it seems that this is the only one. That's OK. At least we have one, a connection to the vaunted Apollo program developed in part right here in Huntington Beach — and a mystery positively solved thanks to the eagle eye of an adept high school student. Thank you, Michael, and everyone else who became part of this adventure.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at

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