Media Life: Ophir's NASA space capsule lands on Weird Auburn list

By: Gus Thomson Media Life
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AUBURN CA - The 50th anniversary of astronaut John Glenn’s landmark global orbit sends Media Life to the cozy Auburn-area community of Ophir for another little-known Weird Auburn location. Few know about a 1960s space-race artifact that has been sitting on the Ophir Elementary School playground and inspiring imaginations to look to the heavens for more than 40 years. Ophir’s Weird (and wonderful) Auburn entry is a six-foot-tall space capsule, painted bright blue, and a genuine artifact from the days when the United States was locked in a race to the moon with the U.S.S.R. The presence of the capsule had much to do with the connections of Ophir School’s principal at the time, Vernon Barnett. A retired military officer, Barnett was able to pull some well-placed strings at NASA during the height of the space frenzy surrounding the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and secure the capsule. At a solid 3,000 pounds, the capsule has survived some hard play on the school grounds over the past 43 years and has become a schoolyard icon. It’s a stripped-down version of the space capsules that flew off into orbit, with none of the electronics or gadgetry. But its shape is a match to ones used on both the Mercury and Gemini programs that led up to the moon missions. It’s highly unlikely that any Right Stuff astronauts took to the skies in it. Instead, California Science Center in Los Angeles aerospace experts have postulated that it may have been flown unmanned in drop tests or used in a wind tunnel to determine aerodynamics. Media Life’s suggestion? Splash some silver paint on it and an American flag to truly honor one of this nation’s greatest achievements. On the fringes of weirdness On the Weird Auburn front again, Media Life has been getting nominations for the Richard “Rattlesnake Dick” Barter memorial – actually a string of them – as worthy of a place in the pantheon of local oddities. Given the fact that few communities can claim to have a “Monument to an Outlaw,” Weird Auburn will make room for “Rattlesnake Richard.” The main monument would be the marker in the old Auburn Cemetery on Fulweiler Avenue, which describes Barter’s “fame” as the outlaw “Rattlesnake Dick.” There is also a marker at the place in Downtown Auburn, where Barter was involved in a fatal shootout back in 1859. At the Raley’s parking lot, where the wounded Barter allegedly took his own life, is yet another. Much ado about an outlaw – perhaps a bit too much – makes the community’s more-than-adequate embrace of a bad guy enough to place Barter in the Weird Auburn annals. On the “famous bad guy front,” several wannabes used Lime Rock in the Bowman area east of Auburn as a lookout for stage robberies. The limestone outcropping hovers ominously over Lake Clementine. Before the North Fork Debris Day was built in the late 1930s, the lake area was North Fork American River canyon land and a stage – as well as a river – ran through it. Lime Rock has been dubbed Robbers Roost for generations and comes by its name honestly – or dishonestly. The Gassaway Gang of the 1860s was the most notorious of the outlaws utilizing Lime Rock. They’d post a lookout there, who would signal with a mirror when the Auburn-Foresthill stage was on the road. A reader’s Lime Rock nomination for Weird Auburn designation also includes a claim that an image of a face can be seen in the formation – but Media Life hasn’t observed that or seen a photo to indicate that feature. In fact, if you’re looking for a really visible image of a facial profile on a rock, travel to the Clementine Trail to Gorilla Rock, which hovers over the North Fork upstream of popular swimming spot Clark’s Hole. Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at (530) 852-0232 or