“Wait here. I have to put my knives in the car to get through security,” my brother Ric says.
I have just met up with my brother at the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center. I never like to wait, and I told him earlier we’d have to go through security. We are here for “the ultimate journey,” as the website says, “where the sky isn’t the limit—it’s just the beginning.” And if that weren’t enough, we also have reservations for the special bus tour offered by the Center: “Cape Canaveral Then and Now.” But before we can blast off, I have to wait for Ric to drop off his knives.
My little brother, age fifty-six, has a slow, hobbling walk. Maybe it’s from decades of carrying seventy pounds of welding equipment a quarter mile to ships in dry dock. Or maybe it’s from walking the streets of Jacksonville during his junkie days. Or from a deal gone bad. Now he’s carrying knives—plural?
I can see I’ll have a bit of a wait. He and I have parked our cars at the far end of the lot. His is the black Lexus, the one he got used “for a very good interest rate,” he tells me, at one of those “no credit, bad credit, no problem” places. Mine is the bland rental because I’ve undertaken a research trip to the Florida coast, coming down from my home in Maine to try to re-construct a childhood of wandering the palmettos and watching rockets take off. Despite previous return visits to see family, I haven’t before connected my childhood geography with the present one.
“Space Coast” Florida in the 1960s is, or was, my homeplace, and I’m trying to remember it as it was in order to write about it. A confluence of Florida geography, the Space Race against the Soviets, and the go-go era of the larger culture launched me in ways I am still learning about. When I left home as a hippie chick in 1969, I “couldn’t have cared less” about the space industry, to use a favorite expression of my father’s.
My re-entry, on the eve of the launch of the final Space Shuttle in 2011—widely considered the end of an era at the Cape—is a conscious return to the landmarks of those early days in which I grew up. With Ric, I’ve visited the East Coast Surf Museum and Ron Jon’s Surf Shop, where he told me stories about the locally famous surfers in the photos, and we later cruised the docks of Port Canaveral, like teenagers sharing a joint with friends.
Our father was an engineer at the Cape in the early days of the industry, the Fifties and Sixties, and I want to see where he worked, an area that was only open to employees, like my father, with government security clearance. That’s why I’m here, and I’ve invited Ric to come with me. I could have not mentioned I was going and instead just wandered through the exhibits and my memories alone, quietly taking notes. But I know Ric has a much better memory of the past than I do, and I need his commentary. Ric and I haven’t spent this much time together over the decades since we were kids and he was called “Ricky.”
As I follow the cement walkway to the famous Center, bland marigolds bloom in evenly spaced rows, and the mild air and warm sun conspire to make it feel like a real Florida tourist attraction. The swells of welcoming recorded “space” music unfold, as if I were actually moving into and through the black and starry great beyond rather than up to the ticket booth. I can detect the influences of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the music, and I close my eyes and raise my face toward the sun, floating off in the swelling strings of the mood music with no discernible thematic resolution. By the time Ric returns, I am more than a little edgy and ready to get in line at the ticket kiosk.
“Oh shit,” Ric says, patting the front pockets of his jeans as we get to the entrance door. “I forgot about the Mace. I have to go back to the car.”
“No way!” I say. “Just discreetly toss it into that garbage can.”
“It costs eight bucks.”
“I’ll stash it in the bushes over there,” he points to a cement flower planter attached to the side of the building.
I look around, hoping no one notices what he is doing. What a hassle it would be to get busted hiding a can of Mace in the bushes in front of a federal building, especially with a two-time felon. I can see how he’s made some less-than-smart choices over the years, and I can’t believe he’s not extra careful to avoid doing even the tiniest thing that could land him back in jail.
As we push our tickets into the machines and walk through the Security Clearance turnstyles, the guard says, “One at a time.” I imagine this is something my brother has heard before in other situations involving guards.
We pass through the darkened Information Center and wander out into the blazing sunlight of the Rocket Garden. The space music follows. Here, a dozen or so famous missiles, or replicas of missiles, stand at attention on cement pads or lay on their sides, each with a little plaque detailing its merits. Mercury, Atlas, Titian, Gemini, Apollo, Saturn, Agena—the names were designed to evoke the grandeur of gods and timelessness.
These missiles are all “old-timers” from the early days of the space industry, the ones launched at the “Old Cape” we will be visiting; at the Space Center, anything before the beginning of the Space Shuttle program in 1981 is considered ancient history. Some of these rockets have been drawn and quartered to reveal their insides and their “stages.” Stages, as any Space Coast schoolchild would know, fall off one by one after liftoff, when the missile reaches specific altitudes, until only the main capsule is left.
I wander over to one of the smaller rockets and read it’s the Redstone. Redstone is a name I haven’t heard in thirty-five years. The little plaque tells me the sturdy Redstone, the workhorse of the 1950s, was drafted into Project Mercury, NASA’s first manned space program in 1958, the year we moved to the area so my father could work at the Cape. Project Mercury—how these names come back to me. Alan Shepherd rode the Mercury 7 as the first American in space, my brother reminds me.
“Oh, right,” I say.
“And remember that jump-rope thing you and your friends did?” he asks.
“What ‘jump-rope thing’?”
“You know, with the names of the seven astronauts.”
I don’t remember that because I am trying to remember which ones of these missile “corpses” my father might have been a part of. Or rather I am trying to imagine which because I don’t think I ever knew—and now there is no one left to ask. I think he was part of the Mercury project, so I look for those with that identification. How could a kid not know what rocket her daddy worked on? Isn’t that the kind of thing you’d talk about at the dinner table? Wouldn’t you actually get kind of sick of hearing about it every night—assuming he was home every night?
I suddenly remember my father worked in guidance, that he was a guidance engineer. Of course, how could I forget? What an ironic job title for him.
I thought I came to visit this tourist site to learn more about the space industry for my writing project. Now I realize I’m searching for my father. I am looking for signs of him I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. He has been dead for almost thirty years. I know nothing about his work life, nothing about what he spent his professional career doing—while it lasted—and what he did all day after he drove into the morning traffic jam on that narrow strip of asphalt out to the Cape. I asked him once what he did at work. “Draw pictures,” he said in his characteristic, joking tone. I figured out later it had some connection to drafting; in this case, it was drafting a missile flight plan. He was always the go-to guy at home for math and science projects, and he once explained to me “the rule of thumb” about electrical current, but I can’t remember it now.
As an inheritance, my dad left me a cardboard, twenty-four-can Schlitz beer box, a nice sturdy one with top flaps that tuck in. He presented it to me rather ceremoniously after alluding to it for years. Like most drunks, he was famous for repeating himself—“That’s what you’re getting,” he would say—but he was also savvy enough to realize the tragedy and irony the legacy of a cardboard box represented. As the oldest and the daughter, I would be the keeper of the family heirlooms.
Inside the box were two slide rules in leather cases from this student years, his Navy medals and a black leather journal from his days as a flight navigator on an aircraft carrier plane during the war, a diploma in electrical engineering from the University of Miami, and a report card from Thomas Junior High in South Philadelphia. There was a collection of postcards, two letters, and greeting cards I sent after I left home, maybe fifteen years worth; it seems I didn’t write much. For a guy who made his career tracking missile courses, his course was conspicuously untrackable. Him running out for a pack of Chesterfields when I was a kid could mean two or three days with no sign of his whereabouts.
A couple of tourist kids are dashing down the gangplank to the mock Apollo capsule where they can try out the seats. It was this same kind of gangplank the crew of the Apollo 1 walked down for the launch dress rehearsal, which ended in an accidental flash fire in 1967, killing the three men. My father wasn’t there, that I know. By then, he was out of the industry, never to work at the Cape again. One too many drunk driving arrests and petty misdemeanors meant he lost his all-important, government-issued security clearance. Without it he could no longer drive past the checkpoint gate to get into the Cape. When did that happen, I try to remember. Sometime in the mid-Sixties, sometime when I was in high school. I do some quick math and am shocked to realize my father was a rocket engineer for maybe only ten years.
I appraise the rockets again, this time by launch dates. My brother gives me information, more details than I want to know, about how the missiles work and the peculiarities of some of the components, information he’s gleaned from his prodigious reading and watching the Discovery Channel. He takes a professional interest in the welded joints.
The only other visitors in the Rocket Garden besides the kids and their parents are a young couple with shiny new wedding bands, who are taking an inordinate amount of photos of each other in front of the rockets. Why are those other people here, I wonder. What can be their interest be in these relics? Why would they care that the two things a rocket needs are thrust and guidance? Thrust gets it into the air, and guidance keeps it on its all-important track until it slots into its orbit above the atmosphere.
The Kennedy Space Center is the official name of this tourist attraction, museum, and historical theme park, and it sits just outside the NASA Kennedy Space Center, where the real work of space exploration actually happens. In the early days, all the action was out on the edge of the Cape, until the giant Vehicle Assembly Building and the Space Shuttle launch pads were built farther inland. The Cape Canaveral bus tour is taking us out to see this “old Cape.”
At the bus staging area, no fewer than four guards direct us to the right line. There is a wall-sized map mural of where we will be going. Maps are about imagination as much as fact for me, and I imagine the empty green spaces between launch sites still so like the open palmettos I used to wander as a child. We’ll be driving over the Banana River and entering through the North Gate; my father always entered through the South Gate, since my hometown of Satellite Beach is south of the Cape.
Once, for a family outing, my father drove us to the South Gate. Since family members without badges weren’t allowed, we stopped and gazed for a few moments at the other side where the acres of palmettos looked just like the side we were on. Then he ceremoniously turned the car around. We headed back to Cocoa Beach so we could drive our car along the hard-packed sand with the waves on one side and beachfront joints on the other. We parked and unloaded lawn chairs, beach toys, towels, grill, charcoal, marinated chicken parts, chips, beer and sodas. We kids headed for the water with my father, who dove head first into the waves, a feat I wasn’t yet brave enough to try.
Much later, as the evening sky was turning pink and orange, Ric and I scouted for driftwood. My father made a shallow pit behind the car to dump the fading hot coals into while my mother put the food away. My parents drew their chairs around the fire, and Ric and I sat in the sand. Pieces of the wood were added into the pit to flame and flare in the soft darkness, while my father sang all the verses to “A Fox Went Out on A Chilly Night.” I sifted the cool night sand through my fingers over and over again, the back of my hand hot from the fire.
With us on the tour bus is a slew of thirty-something Russians. What is their interest in this tour, I wonder. Too young to have experienced the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the U.S., they look too hip to not recognize a certain postmodern irony in the situation. After all, the thing we most feared when I was growing up was the Russians invading Cape Canaveral. Maybe these young people read about the Space Race in their textbooks and how the U.S. was actually losing until sometime in the late Sixties. That’s why there was so much pressure on the Mercury program—to catch up with the Russians and that little dog they sent into orbit.
The bridge arches over the Banana River, and we can look out over the flat expanse of palmetto scrublands surrounding a handful of bare patches with missile sites in the middle of them. We can see the Atlantic stretching all the way to Africa. The guardhouse at the gate waves the bus through since we are all completely security-safe. I wonder if the other tourists are surprised at how much of a wilderness this area really is, less developed than the complex of solid cement of Disney World.
Our tour guide, Dave, tells us that what is now called Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, or the “old Cape,” is a mostly natural seventeen-thousand acres, home to alligators and four species of poisonous snakes. Right on cue, we spot a couple of armadillos poking along the side of the road. To me, it’s all just beautiful. The sky is as big as I remembered it—like being out on the ocean or in the middle of the Great Plains—and because the weather is on the cool side today, it is bold blue. The gray-green palmettos stretch out as far as can be seen, their rough fronds creating texture against the sky. I suddenly remember the jump-rope rhyme: “Car-penter, Coo-per, Glenn, and Grissom. Schir-ra, Shepard, and Mis-ter Slayton.”
Dave fills us in on many facts that involve numbers: dates, speed, thrust, weight, length, numbers of employees, miles around the earth, dollars. Actually, I don’t think he ever talks about money, the trillions of dollars spent over the past fifty years maintaining our space superiority. I have figured out that the “now” of this “then and now” tour is about drumming up patriotism, taxpayer interest, and support for the projects now in process for the future.
It’s widely recognized that this is the end of a particular kind of era for the Space Center, an era that saw space exploration as a major national interest and funding priority. After this final launch of the Shuttle Atlantis, the expectation is that everything will be privatized. The local Florida Today newspaper featured an article on the up-and-coming private companies that will launch missiles for their own interests. The article also reminded us the Space Coast has always seen both boom and bust eras, and it’s hard for me to differentiate between the industry’s fluctuations in fortune and those of my family.
Dave tells us about the shenanigans of the astronauts when they were in town: the wild parties at the Holiday Inn, the bikinis on Canaveral pier, the pioneering topless bars, the free Corvettes provided to the astronauts by the enterprising Chevy dealer Jim Rathman, the drag racing down North Atlantic Avenue. But he misses the story about my drunk father somehow driving the fifteen miles between Cocoa Beach and our house, skipping the driveway but making a course correction up onto the lawn so that the front bumper of the Chevy just kissed the palm tree before he passed out in the front seat. Dave doesn’t say how my mother got me up extra early the next morning to go out to the car to try to get him inside before the neighbors woke up. Or how on occasions when my father didn’t make it to the lawn, my mother bundled us kids off to a neighbor’s in the middle of the night so she could drive the twenty miles to the mainland to bail him out.
Dave mentions Bernard’s Surf as the watering hole where the astronauts and press corps mingled; he doesn’t know it’s also the bar where my father cashed his paycheck—the paycheck that briefly made us like all the families of Cape engineers, among the highest earners in the state. Dad always left the pile of bills on the bar in front of him so he could tell the bartender to “take it out of there and something for yourself.” Whatever was left at the end of the night went into his pocket. My mother and he eventually agreed that the check would be mailed from the payroll office right to our house.
Dave paraphrases the “Vegas rule” to say that back then everyone knew that what happened on the Space Coast stayed on the Space Coast. I wonder, though, what happened if you actually lived here? Does what happened just stay there forever?
Our tour passes Hangar “S.” Hangar “S” is where the Mercury astronauts prepped for launch, Dave says. Although it’s fun to see a famous building we watched on television, I don’t really care that much about astronauts; I think my father met a couple of astronauts, officially, at work, but I’m not sure.
What I am most excited to learn, though, is that we are going into the Launch Complex 26 Blockhouse. I have always wanted to go inside a blockhouse, especially one my father might have worked in. They have turned this one, and the surrounding area, into part of the Air Force Space & Missile Museum, a part that can only be accessed by the special, security-cleared tour we are now on. Nearby is the Launch Complex 5/6 from which Alan Shepard, and later Gus Grissom, were launched on Redstone rockets.
I’m sure this has something to do with my father. I know he spent time in launch blockhouses, and I know, or am pretty sure, he worked on Redstones, at least on the unmanned suborbital missions. Or test firings. Yes, I think he was a test engineer—or maybe that was before he was at the Cape, when he worked for Sperry Gyroscopes in Virginia. It’s all so confusing, the numbers and names and places and dates and jargon attached to someone’s life, especially someone in the space industry. But I think my father was actually here in this blockhouse—or one very like it.
The tour bus stops in front of the blockhouse and we are told we can wander at will or follow a docent-led tour. I leap up to get off but am still beat by a line in the aisle. Ric is calmly waiting for everyone else to go ahead. He has learned some kind of Zen acceptance somewhere along the way that I missed out on.
The Russians are chattering among themselves as they stoop to peer out the bus windows at the white, squat cement building with the slight igloo hump for a roof. We have already learned that the walls are two-feet thick while the roof varies between five and eight feet. The sun hits me in the face as I make the final step off the bus; I had forgotten how forceful and ubiquitous the sunshine is here.
The docent swings open one side of the double blast-doors, a heavily plated gateway to a twentieth century fortress. Like the entrance to a cave, the narrow entryway opens into a small chamber, large enough for a dozen or so people to stand comfortably and is decorated with rocket “cheesecake” photos. On either side, doors lead into the two firing rooms, the control rooms from where the rockets were launched, where the buttons were actually pushed to fire up the engines.
We learn that everything in the firing rooms—control panels, equipment, lighting fixtures, wiring paths, paint schemes—is original. The buttons and control handles are cute, looking almost like toys with their rounded, braised-metal edges, shaped and sized for mere twentieth century humans just cutting their first space baby teeth. The black buttons stamped with numbers look like the keys on an old-fashion typewriter. On the front of the control panels are tiny pullout ashtrays like the one in my father’s 1954 Chevy. Inside are cigarette butts, original cigarette butts, the docent tells us. Like a child, I imagine that maybe one is my father’s—but then I see it is a Lucky Strike, not a Chesterfield.
Two blue-green slits, like reptile eyes, look out at the launch pads only four hundred feet away. The window glass is comprised of forty-two layers of quarter-inch glass. Forty-two layers of mica-thin glass, laid one on top of the other very carefully, then heat-fused into a solid block. Even though I can see through it, the view is fuzzy and only the big, outlined shape of a rocket, or a palm tree—or a man’s life with the hot fiery blastoff of anger obscuring everything else—can be seen before the shape slowly rises.
I see the Burroughs guidance computer, identical to the two installed in the Radio Guidance Center. I associate the words “radio” and “guidance” and “test” with my father; he was a radioman on a Navy plane, after all, and a test engineer at another point. I’ve heard the word “Burroughs” sometime in the past, the way children hear those grownup words without knowing their meaning and then repeat them knowingly. I read these computers were used to control the rocket’s flight, using five receiving dishes and transmitting guidance commands back to the rocket. In later years, my father mentioned he used some of the first computers back in the day, the big clunky kind. Indeed, the docent tells us, “The processing computers on board a Mercury mission are now available in a thirty-dollar wristwatch.” I stare at the long brown metal machine, vaguely rusting, but receive no messages from it.
I wander outside into the sleepy Florida afternoon. Some tourists are still inside asking questions, and others are sitting on the benches overlooking the Rocket Garden; the tour guide and bus driver are jawing with a couple of the docents. I walk out into the St. Augustine grass, carefully watching for sticker burrs, and sit down on a chunk of cement. Some kind of bird calls from the palmettos in the late afternoon light.
I try to make up a story, a story not about what was, but a story composed of “what ifs” and “as ifs,” a story that makes my father something other than a minor engineer on a big project who drank his way out of a security clearance. In this story he is not the father who didn’t come home at night. Instead, he is the kind of father who brought us out here on one of those Saturdays in the 1960s when they briefly opened the Cape so the families could see daddy’s rockets. In this story he is a father like one of those on television who dispensed loving guidance to his kids after work.
Too sappy, I think. It can just be an ordinary story. My father would be a regular guy who does his job well, maybe gets singled out from time to time for his good work. He can still be the hail-good-fellow kind of guy who others greet in the hall, who always has a joke or a story to tell. Buck, a great guy, a four-square guy, who maybe in later years the younger men call “Mr. Buckmaster” until he tells them to just call him Buck. And at home, he will really play the mandolin, not just a few chords, stopping with a “hee-hee” when he messes up.
“What are you doing?” My brother is suddenly beside me.
“Nothing.” I realize this is an answer I have given before to my family when interrupted while in the middle of one of my stories. “So what’s up with all the knives?” I ask him.
“My knives? It’s just my pocket knife. And the Leatherman has a little knife on it.”
A Leatherman, a pocket multi-purpose tool in case he to fix something along the way, like our father would have carried.
We rejoin the tour group. Dave winds up again. A jackrabbit dashes across the crumbling, nearly abandoned, road. We are headed toward the launch pad, site of the disastrous Apollo 1 fire.
“The next stop, folks,” Dave says, “is hallowed ground.”