I grew up standing in the shadow of the future. Shadows cast by the rocket men and their dream machines; the long, sleek cylinders that would roar their war-cry and spit dragon-fire as they lifted into the sky, parting the very heavens on their way to immortality. Their names were the things legends are made of: Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, Armstrong…so many more. The rocket men crowded my fantasies that summer as I sat on the warm sands, looking north along the shoreline to the launch pads etched on the horizon. I dreamed of lifting into the sky with them, of breaking free from my earthly confinement and touching the firmaments, of reaching the moon and the stars beyond it.
I came to Merritt Island in 1968, as the nation exploded with violence. There was war abroad and war at home. The explosion was everywhere that year and everything was about change. On TV, the images showed a nation awash with anger and strife, a people at odds with themselves. You could hear it coming from the radio of every Mustang convertible cruising the beach that summer, (…every place she goes is right, flies far, flies near, to the stars away from here) and from every open window. A magic carpet ride beyond comparison for the young refugee boy that was me then; a magical mystery tour of almost epic proportions, my rocket summer of so long ago.
I struggled with everything new, trying desperately to catch up and keep up simultaneously. Things moved so fast in the brave new world I found myself in, a crazy blend of a place left behind forever, and a town where everything seemed possible. Every day was an adventure, every day offered a new challenge and discoveries both thrilling and frightening.
And every day I thought about the rocket men.
Their presence was felt everywhere. Their legendary exploits spoken of in matter-of-fact tones by most everyone, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing their faces on a wall, or hearing their names. As a small family of immigrants observed the time-honored tradition of gathering in front of the TV every night after dinner, the rocket men and the next launch were the dominating topics of the conversation.
Now, years later, I was returning to the little town nestled between the rivers. The black ribbon highway stretched before me endlessly as the years fell behind. Old and familiar sights greeted me as I traveled in time to a better place; a place as alive in my heart this day as those days so long ago of my rocket summer; and slowly, the weight began to fall of my shoulders as I remembered…
The summer sun felt warm and wonderful on my face, and the ocean sent wave after wave to caress the shore. We waited, thousands looking to where the dream machine stood poised to conquer the sky. A perfect bullet born of fantasy and American might, it was the answer to the questions the whole world asked that turbulent summer of 1968; America looked to the future even in times of uncertainty. The beach was the gathering place for the rocket faithful and the tourists then and we joined thousands, just days after my arrival, and looked to the launch pad and the rocket silhouetted against the horizon, awaiting the unfamiliar monotone coming from every radio around us. I counted down the final few seconds along with everyone else.
“…five…four…three…two…one…zero.” Then everything stopped, nothing moved anywhere; it was as if the earth held its breath. And as the dream machine cleared its earthly confinement the crowd roared with one voice.
There was a subtle change in the pavement that told me I was coming to the exit off the Interstate nearest my hotel, but I decided to drive by it and take the next one. I was going east, to the ocean, the Port and my yesterdays. Everything had changed in the ten years since I had been there, all my old landmarks were gone or hidden behind dozens of new buildings. I had a difficult time making my way to the right spot on the beach, but I got there. I parked the rented Mustang and made my way around the high-rise that was once the best place to park with your sweetheart, to the waters’ edge. The moon cast a silver glow on the ocean lighting the night as I stood shivering on the sand, my thoughts wondering once again.
It was bitter cold that December in 1968, at least to me anyway. I was standing on the beach in the coldest winter in my life; I had never felt so cold back in Cuba. There were tens of thousands standing around me, everyone looking north to the pad and to the Apollo rocket.
The dragon-fire exploded under the beast as it roared into life, the sound arriving in waves that penetrated my body to the bone. Then it began to rise, breaking free from the constraints of the launch pad. After what seemed an eternity, the voice on the radio said “We have a liftoff”, and all hell broke loose. There was shouting and cheering, and people jumping and hugging one another as we watched the rocket men leave on their way to the Moon. I stood with my eyes fixed on the dream machine carrying the bold adventurers until it disappeared from sight, wishing I were traveling with them.
A light shone on my face interrupting my daydreaming; building security informed me that I was standing on private property and I had to leave. It was late and I needed to find my hotel, so I apologized and made my way back to the car. I had to be up early the next morning and needed some rest, but a thought crossed my mind and I turned back to the middle aged uniformed rent-a-cop. My question took him by surprise.
“Were you here then?”
“What was that Mister?”
“Were you here…back in the day?”
“Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about. You need to move on.”
I pointed north, to the spot in the dark where I knew the launch pad had once stood and asked the question again.
“Were you here then?”
Slowly, his face changed. All the suspicious concern over the stranger asking the nonsensical question faded and a hint of a smile began to surface.
This time he asked the question.
“Were you here then?”
We spoke for a while; he had lived on the Island his entire life. He filled me in on the details of the going-ons in the ten years since my departure. The slow erosion of interest in the launches, the lay-offs and the shutdowns, we talked about the beach and the surfers, he had been one back then, and how they had both changed. He was upset by buildings like this, restricting beach access “But I have to make a living” he said “so I work here and surf where I can.” He said that only the hardcore faithful bothered to come to the beach to watch the launches anymore, but tomorrow’s launch was big news, and every hotel room was sold out along the Space Coast.
“It’s gonna be like old times” – he said.
The thought of my hotel room being sold to someone else brought the conversation to an abrupt end. We shook hands and said good-bye like old friends.
The room was…well, it was a Holiday Inn. I sat on the bed watching the news for a while, unable to sleep. I came to the realization that there was going to be no sleeping this particular evening; I had of late learned well the signals of a sleepless night, so I dressed and headed out the door.
I drove to the old house where I had sat and watched Armstrong walk on the moon; the house that had been our first home in the US looked small and plain now. I imagined looking in the window and seeing all of us sitting there, in front of the hand-me-down black and white TV set, watching Neil write history with one small step. I drove by the old shops and the schools, by old friends and lover’s houses. I drove looking for that which was lost to me.
The rising sun found me at the beach, and with the first signs of light the faithful began to arrive, the ones that will always be there came to find their perfect spot on the sands, wearing their mission patches like medals, with pride in the history they had helped write. I spoke quietly to the man setting up next to me, and he offered me a cup of hot coffee. He had once been a flight engineer and remembered well the rocket men. We watched the trickle of tourists turn into a flood and I realized I looked like them. Everyone had the same comment to make; no one wanted another day’s delay.
The silhouette of the space ship dominated the horizon, and it was bitter cold, like that day in 1968 when I watched the rocket men leave for the Moon. Some of the old feelings came back as the familiarity of the scene washed over me. I was home.
Every radio around me crackled with the familiar monotonous cadence.
“Ten…nine…eight…seven…six…” (someone standing next to me asked if I knew the names of the crew members, I could only recall the teacher’s name “”It”s McAuliffe, the first name is Christa” I replied as the voice on the radio droned on) “…five…four…three…two…one…zero.”
Then everything stopped, nothing moved anywhere; it was as if the earth held its breath.
For seventy-three glorious seconds, that cold January morning in 1986 was my rocket summer again. And then I watched it die forever.
The silence was deafening as we struggled to understand what we were seeing. Then the man that had given me the coffee sobbed, and someone in front of him fell to his knees in prayer. People hugged one another and cried soundlessly as we all watched the trails of smoke fall into the ocean.
The crowd left slowly and quietly. What little talk there was, conducted in hushed whispers. I sat there until I was practically alone. Then the tears came in a flood, and I prayed.
I prayed for the seven souls that manned the Challenger, I prayed for their families. I prayed for the technicians and the ground crews then and now whose hard work and dreams had exploded in mid-flight. I said goodbye to my yesterdays, faced my today and prayed for a better tomorrow.
I walked back to my car, hunched against a cold that came from within and turned to face the shore one last time. Standing there on my beach, I saw, in my mind’s eye, that wide-eyed young boy I had come looking for, laughing the laughter of untarnished youth, waving goodbye to the rocket men, and to me.
The Challenger crew reached the heavens that morning, never to return and walk among mere humans. They are still up there today. Up there standing in the shadow of His wing; alive in the hearts of all men, women and children who dream of the stars.
Up there “where never lark, or even eagle flew”.
January 28, 1986
Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Judith A. Resnik, Mission Specialist 1
Ellison S. Onizuka, Mission Specialist 2
Ronald E. McNair, Mission Specialist 3
Gregory B. Jarvis, Payload Specialist 1
Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist 2
“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in thee my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of thy wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.” — Psalms, 57:1
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
No 412 squadron,
Killed 11 December 1941