Friday, July 19, 2019

Misty Memories of the Moon (and Beyond)


Earlier today I saw an NBC segment done by Tom Brokaw on the historic moon landing of Apollo 11. I cried all the way through it.


I don’t remember the start of NASA’s Project Mercury but do remember the seven astronauts becoming some of my earliest heroes outside of my own family. Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton were an important part of this little girl’s life and imagination.

“As the crow flies” we lived a little over a hundred miles away from Cape Canaveral, the location of the space center. Situated as our house was on “Coon Prairie,” east of Arcadia, Florida, our family was actually able to witness the launches and we thrilled to see Alan Shepard become the first American in space and John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

I cried when my hero, Gus Grissom, was killed in a pre-launch test of Apollo 1. But by the time the Apollo project was launched, my early heroes had been sort of pushed aside by The Monkees and The Beatles. I had continued to follow the space program, just … not as enthusiastically.

Still, along with millions of other Americans, I kept one eye on the race to the moon. Seems silly now but I remember being quite fearful when Apollo 8, with Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, first orbited the moon – the moon, you’ll recall, shows us only one face and we’d never seen its “dark side.” “What if … ???” my young mind worried.

In July of 1969, I was eagerly preparing for a trip abroad, to spend a period of time studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music, to be followed by excursions across Germany and into Austria and France. All excitement for my own trip was set aside on July 20, though, as my family and I crowded around our black-and-white TV to witness men, who’d flown farther and higher than I ever expected to, set foot on the moon. "That's one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind." Neil Armstrong’s words stirred tears of pride and still thrill me to this day.

His courage, and the raw courage of all who’ve participated in the space program as astronauts, was and remains inspirational.

Because of my life-long residence in Florida, I feel very connected to the space program. I’ve been an eyewitness to some of its biggest – and its most tragic – moments. At Punta Gorda’s Charlotte High School, I learned of the explosion of space shuttle Challenger and went outside to see the weird vapor trail it had left. Class activities were suspended for the rest of the day as students and teachers grieved its loss.

Two and a half years later it was my good fortune to be visiting the Space Coast’s Palm Bay High School as Discovery launched its “Return to Flight” mission. Palm Bay High is located only 20 miles or so away from the space center’s launch pad and its teachers and students had been traumatized by witnessing Challenger’s explosion at such close range. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath as we convened on the roof to watch Discovery’s launch. Cheers erupted as it safely exited the atmosphere … followed by many tears shed, a mixture of relief for the current mission and grief for the failed one.   

I stayed after the closing bell at Lehigh Senior High School (Lehigh Acres) to watch alone as Discovery took my old hero John Glenn on a journey to become the oldest American in space. And I may have cried.

I may cry again tomorrow, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s “one small step.”  

Thanks for the memories. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

'Ricans


Recent events have brought a years-ago experience to mind.

My husband Greg and I used to be vendors at The Big E, a huge event in Western Massachusetts that I’d describe as the combined state fair of the six New England states (New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island). The fair had all the rides and “fair food” and agricultural exhibits of most state fairs, but there was also a strong cultural emphasis on the unique “character” of each of those six states.

For me personally, my month-long residence in Western Mass was a different type of cultural experience. Not only was I immersed in a New England “lifestyle” that was foreign to this native Southerner, but for the first time in my life I was exposed to strong pockets of immigrant culture -- whole neighborhoods where to varying degrees the “mother” culture and language were preserved. Russia, Ireland, Italy, and Puerto Rico were strongly represented; there were even weekly newspapers in Russian and Spanish. I thought it was pretty cool, and it certainly was very interesting.

One of the many friends I made over the years was Ricky, a young man who worked at the station where UPS and FedEx packages were delivered. Greg met him first, and was very impressed with this hard-working individual who always took vacation time from his principal occupation to work The Big E. Ricky wanted to make extra money for all the reasons that all of us want to make extra money: the dream of marrying “my girl,” one day owning a home, and of course just everyday Life. He always had a smile on his face, it seemed, and as his friendship with Greg developed, he seemed to take extra-special good care of us. After Greg took ill, and was no longer physically capable of picking up the parcels himself, Ricky even took it upon himself to deliver our shipments because he knew how hard it would be for me to leave our booth.

When the shipment station closed down for the day, Ricky would sometimes come by to hang out a little, maybe drink a beer, and we got to know him even better. It was during one of these times that I learned something from him that has stayed with me ... and probably -- hopefully! -- will the rest of my life. Because he appeared to be Hispanic, and knowing that there was a sizable Puerto Rican population in the area, I asked Ricky if he were Puerto Rican. He smiled at me, then emphatically said, “I’m ‘Rican! I’m ‘Amer-rican!” He then went on to explain that, while both of his parents had been born in Puerto Rico (which is, of course, part of the US and has been since 1898), he had been born IN America (one of the 50 states); he was all-American and of Puerto Rican descent.

The pride with which he made this declaration filled my heart with pride as well.

I think back on Ricky today, remembering his ambition and industry, his work ethic, his willingness to go above and beyond, his smile, his friendship ... most of all his pride in his American citizenship. “My” America is richer because of him.