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A Life: Henry Theodore "Ted" Asselin, 1931 — 2013; ‘Let’s Go Get That Missile’

  • The 83-foot-tall decommissioned Redstone missile on the Warren, N.H., green was brought to town by the late Ted Asselin. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    The 83-foot-tall decommissioned Redstone missile on the Warren, N.H., green was brought to town by the late Ted Asselin. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • Ted Asselin stands in front of the rocket on the Warren, N.H., green in 1975. (Family photograph)

    Ted Asselin stands in front of the rocket on the Warren, N.H., green in 1975. (Family photograph)

  • The 83-foot-tall decommissioned Redstone missile on the Warren, N.H., green was brought to town by the late Ted Asselin. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Ted Asselin stands in front of the rocket on the Warren, N.H., green in 1975. (Family photograph)

On an April afternoon in 1971, dozens of people gathered on the green of Warren, N.H., in a bizarre mixture of anticipation, confusion and revelry. In the crowd was Sheila Asselin, clutching a jelly jar full of whiskey. She had told a friend that she really needed a drink, and the friend, having ample reason to believe Sheila, on this of all days, could use the help, obliged.

Suddenly, a rumor rushed through the crowd — it was nearing town. But, as it neared, the crowd realized the approaching tractor trailer was carrying only a septic tank pumper.

But before long, it finally did arrive, and it was a heck of a lot more impressive than a septic tank: An 83-foot-tall decommissioned U.S. military rocket, a Redstone, to be exact, the kind that launched the first U.S. astronauts into space.

It had been coerced out of the military’s hands, and brought from Alabama to Warren by Sheila’s husband, Ted Asselin, who convinced her to go along with his whimsical plan to erect the rocket on the town green.

“I thought of the children who were far removed from America’s space program, except for television, and that seeing the real thing might interest some child in science of the space program, and the fact that Astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr., was originally from New Hampshire — why not take one to New Hampshire!” Ted Asselin wrote as part of an informational post explaining the bizarre monument.

Ted Asselin died on June 19, 2013, at the age of 81 at his home in North Haverhill, forever proud of the lasting fame that his whimsical project had brought to his hometown.

He grew up in Warren, N.H., the oldest of five children, during the Great Depression. His father, Henry, died when he was 8, and Asselin was forced to grow up quickly.

When he was 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Army — in all he spent 22 years in the armed forces.

For much of that time, he worked as a military police officer. While stationed outside Atlanta, Asselin attended a dance for military personnel one night. Among the crowd was Sheila, whose father was stationed at the nearby base.

She recognized Asselin, the friendly MP who would wave when they passed his security post. They chatted, briefly, but he seemed to leave in a hurry, claiming he needed to wash his uniform gloves to be ready for the next day.

“I thought, what kind of nerd leaves a dance at 9:30 p.m. to wash his gloves?” Sheila Asselin said.

It turned out that Asselin was broke, and didn’t want to be embarrassed when he couldn’t afford to buy a drink. In hindsight, he had little reason to worry — they were engaged within a few months.

But as the years went by, Asselin was not advancing far up the career ladder, and his paychecks were barely enough to support his growing family — they would eventually have seven children. So he made a dangerous choice — to make more money, Asselin transferred out of the military police and volunteered to fight in Vietnam.

During a fire-fight in the Mekong Delta, a bullet passed through the back of Asselin’s neck and through the head of the man standing next to him, a Vietnamese soldier, who stood a few inches shorter.

His commander ordered him to evacuate in helicopters that were landing nearby. But, as he started for the choppers, Asselin saw enemy soldiers gathering in the trees around him. He stayed put for several minutes, blood pouring from his neck, to radio the enemy’s position to his fellow soldiers. For that, Asselin was awarded a Silver Star. And, on the anniversary of that day for the rest of his life, Asselin talked on the phone with his commander, who remained a lifelong friend and spoke at his funeral.

The Asselins would eventually settle in North Haverhill, in a home they built. In retirement, Asselin pored over history books and shared crossword puzzle duties every morning with his wife. He was known as a jokester, the kind of guy who could make the hours pass pleasantly while sitting on the front porch, telling yarns.

But of course, one of his stories will linger longer than all the others.

Asselin had been stationed at one time at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal facility in Alabama, the epicenter of the country’s rocketry program. It was there that he noticed obsolete, surplus Redstone rockets, which had powered NASA’s Project Mercury, lying in a field.

He began making inquiries and was told that, as long as it didn’t cost the military one penny, he could have one.

“Lets go get that missile,” he told his wife, after they had moved back to New Hampshire.

A friend, Lew Brown of Wentworth, N.H., lent him a trailer and another buddy, Irving Macdonald, volunteered to serve as his companion.

The men vaguely knew they needed permits and insurance to transport the rocket through several states, but decided to take a chance that they would make it unmolested. They didn’t. They were stopped by police in several states, and Sheila was forced to pay $500 when they were pulled over and fined in Ohio.

(The Asselins paid for nearly everything, all but draining their savings account.)

Nearing home, they took the wrong route into New Hampshire, failed to link up with a police escort, broke down in Concord and had to be towed to the Statehouse, where Gov. Walter Peterson was waiting. The men had been on the road for three days. When they opened the cab’s doors to greet the governor about 20 empty beer cans spilled to the ground.

Back in Warren, not everyone was grateful for Asselin’s efforts.

Many in town were concerned that the rocket would rise higher than the steeple of the nearby church. Others worried that it would draw the attention of the Russians and make Warren a target for an attack. Some just thought it was an eyesore.

“A lot of people just didn’t want it, and a lot figured, ‘Well, that will be cool, that will be different,’ ” said Asselin’s longtime friend, Bryan Flagg of Warren.

But the supporters outnumbered the detractors, and the rocket has long since become an indelible part of town.

“It’s the biggest thing Warren is known for and probably one of the most photographed things in the area,” Flagg said. “Nobody knows where Warren is, but they know where the Redstone missile is in the White Mountains. It’s a neat thing — if people don’t know where you live and you say, ‘Have you ever heard of the Redstone Missile?’ Well, that’s Warren.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.