NASA

Letter to editor, message to son

DW_letter_2_croppedAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 20, 2017.

The day Dad moved out of our family’s red bungalow in Providence, my mother handed me a letter written in his familiar hand.

The first line made my 9-year-old eyes well up: “Ever since you were a baby, I have marveled at how happy I was to be with you.” The second paragraph provided details I would someday understand: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” And toward the end, Dad made a request that would shape the rest of my childhood: “Continue to be good to little James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world. It’s very important to me that you be a good big brother to your little brother.”

My father had left a letter for my 12-year-old brother, Rob, too. But I doubted there was one for James — he was only 3.

My younger brother and I shared a room, and at night I would climb into his bed if the wind howled or we heard strange noises outside. At age 4 or 5, he asked me why Dad didn’t live with us, and I did my best to explain.

The question underscored how different James’ experience of the divorce was from Rob’s and mine. For us, there was a before and after; for him, there was only Dad’s absence, which became more pronounced once my father’s unpredictable Saturday visitations stopped altogether.

Rob and I managed to maintain relationships with our father as we grew older, but James, by his teenage years, had virtually no contact with him. When my younger brother enlisted in the Coast Guard right out of high school, my father, a former Marine, learned about it from me. Several months later, I gave Dad James’ boot camp graduation photo, which he framed and set by his TV. My brother’s crisp uniform and stern look made it clear he was “little James” no more.

James was assigned to the Point Charles, an 82-foot cutter stationed at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. On calls home, his stories about perilous rescues and high-speed chases made my mother proud and uneasy. She was less concerned about his boat’s security patrols just off the Florida coast prior to NASA’s space shuttle launches.

James took part in 11 shuttle liftoffs and, in January 1986, was deployed for his 12th when the Point Charles blew an engine en route to its position several miles offshore. The captain was ordered to limp on to Jacksonville, and the Point Charles was replaced by the Point Roberts for the impending launch of Challenger.

James would later say he was thankful not to have been an eyewitness to the space shuttle disintegrating in the sky.

Wreckage from the Challenger was retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean by a flotilla of Coast Guard and Navy vessels. With the Point Charles disabled, James and his fellow crew members had the solemn task of collecting debris that washed ashore.

On Feb. 5, eight days after the tragedy, The Providence Journal published reactions from its readers, one of which came from my father:

“With the media coverage attendant to the Challenger disaster, a thankless task may have gone overlooked by many Americans; namely, the sea-air rescue men and women, particularly the Coast Guard, working at the impact area off Cape Canaveral. Theirs is a useful, necessary, dangerous, lonely and, at times, distasteful mission. They do our dirty work quite well, I might add.”

My mother clipped the section from the paper and, after highlighting my father’s letter, sent it off to James. On his next call home, my brother thanked her. “Dad got it right,” he said.

Seventeen years earlier, Rob and I had gotten our letters; now James had his. It was as close to reconnecting as he and my father would come.

To this day, James keeps Dad’s letter, creased and yellowing, tucked away in a lockbox.

The world as one, thanks to rocket men

Buzz_AldrinAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 16, 2017. [Photo: NASA]

On July 20, 1969, the Boston Red Sox completed a weekend sweep of the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, but the Fenway faithful weren’t getting their hopes up. The Sox still trailed the powerhouse O’s by 11 games.

Besides, at least for the moment, another match-up had eclipsed baseball for the attention of most New Englanders, not to mention the rest of the world: The United States and the Soviet Union were in the ninth inning of their race to the moon, and the Americans were ready to close things out.

The Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon at 4:18 EDT that Sunday afternoon, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation eight years earlier to accomplish the feat before the end of the decade. To say that JFK’s bold vision had captured the imagination of Americans is an understatement. References to space suffused pop culture in the 1960s and would continue to do so for years to come.

In our kitchens, we munched on Space Food Sticks and sipped Tang, the orange powdered breakfast drink that John Glenn had once quaffed in orbit; on our televisions, we watched “Lost In Space,” “Star Trek,” and “The Jetsons”; and on the radio, Sinatra advised that a girl’s kiss could “fly me to the moon.”

One of the most captivating songs to emerge during the Space Race was David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which tells the story of fictional astronaut Major Tom. The single, released five days before the Apollo 11 launch, traded on the ever-present danger inherent in space exploration. What if something went wrong, as it had with Apollo 1 when a cockpit fire took the lives of the three crew members? Or what if a spacecraft were unable to return home, as is the case with Major Tom? He leaves us with a wistful lament from the heavens: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”

(Bowie’s hit was prescient: in April 1970, an oxygen tank explosion forced Apollo 13 to abort its lunar landing and raised the harrowing specter that the spacecraft and crew would be cast into orbital oblivion. Such a fate was averted, thanks to some improvised ingenuity by NASA.)

Earth was a tumultuous place in 1969 as protests against the Vietnam War raged in the United States, the Troubles escalated in Northern Ireland, and food blockades in the Biafran War caused widespread famine.

The moon landing provided a breathtaking, if fleeting, respite from worldly woes, as well as an unprecedented collective human event. More than half a billion people tuned in on television as the astronauts stepped onto the moon’s surface. Neil Armstrong spoke for all nations and peoples when he said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin was more succinct, but equally poetic: “Magnificent desolation.”

Back on Earth, people marveled.

Novelist Vladimir Nabokov offered this in the New York Times the following day: “Treading the soil of the moon, palpating its pebbles, tasting the panic and splendor of the event, feeling in the pit of one’s stomach the separation from terra … these form the most romantic sensation an explorer has ever known.”

On CBS, Walter Cronkite said, “The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us, because if we are not able to land at least we are able to follow.”

In the fall, my father gave my brothers and me a hardcover book commemorating the Apollo 11 mission. On the front flyleaf, he wrote: “Never forget the day man reached for the stars.”

But 48 years later, perhaps no statement is as poignant as the one inscribed on the stainless-steel plaque left behind by Armstrong and Aldrin: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

In today’s inflamed geopolitical climate, I am struck by the benevolence of those words and the unanimity, however idealistic, they expressed.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: