Wednesday, June 29, 2016

"Stitches" -- Becoming Memory Series

From my bed, the house is quiet, too quiet until I hear the clickedy clickedy clickedy of my mother’s black Singer sewing machine. A deeper click—metal arm on metal—as the presser foot is raised; a small clunk when she lowers it again. A hum rolls the flywheel forward, and then clickedy clickedy clickedy under the machine’s tiny light, now faster, now slower, my mother’s hands under the machine’s strong light.
Plink—a pin drops into the pin box. Plink. Plink. Silence and I know she is re-pinning, re-folding alone at the dining room table, hunched over the dining room table, hours with that tiny, strong light.
How smart I will look in my new pleated skirt, I think. Her handiwork gathers yards of plaid into neat folds, over and over all that fabric into neat folds secured at the waistband with a straight topstitch. The pleat edges meet perfectly, obscuring the layer beneath. The cloth’s cross patterns always line up— “matching the plaid” the mark of a careful seamstress.
Tomorrow I will stand on a dining room chair and turn, turn one pin at a time as she folds the hem just below my skinny knees. It takes so long that a little restless hot spot burns in my belly. I hate how tiny my turns have to be. I want to be able to twirl and leap. Eventually, the ironing board will be brought out, and each pleat ironed so that they march briskly around the skirt, ready to give and flow with movement.  A pleated skirt is not as good for twirling as a flared one, but the accordion action of the pleats is excellent for leaping.
Copyright, 2016, Linda S. Buckmaster

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Gunsmoke" -- Becoming Memory Series

My father plays out his cowboy self with a .22 pistol the year we live in Sunnyvale for his temporary job in California. Some Saturdays, he takes my brother and me out to a gravel pit in the hills for target practice. I aim for those concentric circles off in the distance, just like my father shows me. The kickback, relatively small, makes my ten-year-old arm jump. My father kneels behind my brother, only six, to hold his arm up when it’s his turn.
Afterwards, we study the little holes we made in the target paper, unable to tell whose is whose. Together in the faint autumn sunlight—Central California before the rains and the smell of dry leaves and my father’s suede jacket and his Chesterfields all mix together. It always hangs around him, that outlaw smell, but he was never really an outlaw himself. He didn’t have the heart for it.
It’s that Thanksgiving my father shoots himself in the thigh practicing his “quick draw,” like on “Gunsmoke,” my brother’s toy plastic holster strapped to his leg, Jim Beam by his side. The women and kids are back at the house helping my aunt clean up dinner when my uncle brings him hobbling in, blood streaming down his leg. They don’t bleed on television shows in those days, and we all stare in fascination. “He got me. He got me. The S.O.B. got me,” my father, the great kidder, moans in mock agony.
My mother takes him to the hospital where they pull the bullet out and stitch him up. The story becomes a family joke, a neighborhood joke, a workplace joke, a bar joke, a story about how tough my father is that morphs into a story about how cool and ironic my father is as I grow old enough to want to be cool and ironic myself.
One of his buddies makes for him a commemorative wooden plaque—a two foot by ten inch piece of pine stained a dark brown and carved with the tribute:  “Dick ‘Quick Draw’ Buckmaster. November 24, 1960.”  Mounted in the center like a trophy fish, smaller than you would expect, is the bullet, the legend being larger than reality, as legends usually are.  
Copyright, 2016, Linda S. Buckmaster 

Monday, June 27, 2016

"Becoming Memory" Series -- Florida Sunday

 Florida Sunday

It could be any late Sunday afternoon, one of those when my father might be home, barbecuing chicken, though the forecast is for thunderstorms.  He sits in a lawn chair, shirtless beside the palmetto palm, a can of Schlitz in one hand, his latest issue of Time in the other, folded back over itself. The chicken always takes very, very long, and we’re always waiting. Perhaps it’s because he started the charcoal too late or my mother put the potatoes in the oven too early. They discuss this every time.
At that time on a Sunday, I am usually walking home alone barefoot on hot asphalt up from the beach at the end of the street. It’s not one of those soft, fine-grained white beaches rich with quartz sand where families usually go. Instead, this sand is coarse, brownish tan with the shells of tiny animals worn down to grains by millions of waves. The coquina reef just below the sand bares itself close to the water’s edge, stark at low tide, or at high tide scraping your legs if you forget while swimming and kick too hard.
Walking  toward the black afternoon thunderheads, the heat letting up just a little, I round the corner to Albatross Drive, noting whether my father’s car is in the driveway, whether we are having chicken tonight.  And if not, my mother and brother and I will eat once-frozen chicken pot pies and wait for “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” to come on as the foaming thunderheads move over the house and leave behind a great humid silence.
Copyright, 2016, Linda S. Buckmaster

Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Becoming Memory" Flash Essay Series

The High Lonesome Sound
In the early days of our family when it is just me and no car air conditioning, my parents drive all night through the Southwest to escape the heat of the day. It’s the beginning of the aerospace industry, and my father follows the jobs around the country with his GI Bill engineering degree—Riverside, Long Beach, Norfolk, Maryland, and eventually Cape Canaveral. We’re in some kind of Chevrolet coupe, of course, second-hand.  That’s what he always drives. In later years, I’ll associate the rounded lines and grinning grills of the early 1950s models with the possibilities of family.
In the mornings, we pull into a motel where I amuse myself with books and dolls while they sleep. My mother wakes late morning and takes me to the pool so my father, the driver, can get a few more hours’ sleep. After lunch in the car, he’ll tell jokes and sing loudly in what he calls his “whiskey tenor.” “When the moon hits the eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore,” he sings, never finishing a whole song.
We drive through the afternoon and evening, the desert landscape rolling by. After a long sunset, the funnel of the headlights reveal just what was necessary to know of the road ahead. My parents talk through the night quietly or not at all, my four-year-old self witness to this dashboard light intimacy.
Eventually I climb into the rounded window shelf above the back seat, just cozy enough for a small child,  and hypnotize myself with the passing lights that fade away into the darkness as the radio plays softly and my father sings along from time to time. Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Flatt and Scruggs, music that is always best with a bit of nighttime static behind it conveying great distances, distances traveled and those left to go.
I’m too young to understand the situations they’re singing about in those songs, but the music tells me everything  I need to know. The “high lonesome sound” drifts around the car while the hot air pours through my father’s window, his elbow languishing on the door. The singer’s plaintive story-telling, the dobro’s call, the pedal steel guitar pulling long and low, the fiddle alternating between joy and sorrow—this is life, I come to imagine, or at least my father’s idea of life. I learn about loneliness and longing and loss, real or imagined, from that radio. I hear how they wrap around each other in harmony and travel with us through the hot night on invisible waves of air. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

"Becoming Memory" Flash Essay Series

 We all have our father stories. I'll be posting mine as a series of flash essays that make up a longer essay titled "Becoming Memory." It was originally published in "Upstreet 8." If you want to read the whole thing at once, you can visit

My mother, who will not be my mother for some years, waits on the corner of Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, waiting for my father, of course. South Philadelphia after the War, both from the same neighborhood, and somehow engaged though he wasn’t the boyfriend she always thought she would have. My father, the bad boy of Mollbore Terrace. His father, the steady draftsman at the Navy Yard with a job all through the Depression, keeping a bottle in the desk drawer and another down in his cellar workshop.
“You get out of that tree right now, Dick Buckmaster!” my mother had yelled at my father years earlier from inside the house where she was babysitting. By then, he was already a pack-a-day teenage smoker but still climbing city trees and teasing younger girls. He told her later on their wedding night, “I never thought I’d get someone as nice as you, Thelma.”
Now, here she is waiting for him, her fiancé. The sound of Benny Goodman’s clarinet slips out of the radio at Tony’s Corner Store each time a customer opens the door. They go in and out again picking up a pack of cigarettes, a half pound of cold cuts, an Italian ice, and still my father hasn't come. The streetcar stops, then clangs its lunge forward.
My mother bends to straighten the seam of her stocking. Streetlights blink on. She opens her handbag and pulls out her compact. She doesn’t yet know that this will be her life.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

What have your read about Florida?

There really is no place like Florida and never has been since the days of the Ais Indians. Here are a few quotes and a partial list of books that have inspired my writing that you may be less familiar with. Writing about Florida starts in the 16th Century and goes on from there.

"The wild part of Florida is really wild. The tame part is really tame. Both, though, are always in flux . . . Nothing seems hard or permanent; everything is always changing or washing away."
                                                                     Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

“I remember the very day that I became colored. Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town. The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando. The native whites rode dusty horses, the Northern tourists chugged down the sandy village road in automobiles. The town knew the Southerners and never stopped cane chewing when they passed. But the Northerners were something else again. They were peered at cautiously from behind curtains by the timid. The more venturesome would come out on the porch to watch them go past and got just as much pleasure out of the tourists as the tourists got out of the village.”
                                                             Zora Neale Hurston, “How it Feels to Be Colored Me"

"The fact is, that people cannot come to heartily like Florida till they accept certain deficiencies as the necessary shadow to certain excellences." 
                                                              Harriet Beecher Stowe, from Palmetto Leaves 

“The Florida Reader. Visions of Paradise 1530 to the Present.”Eds.: Maurice O’Sullivan and Jack C. Lane. Pineapple Press, 1991. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

“Old South, New South, or Down South? Florida and the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” Ed.: Irwin D.S. Winsboro. West Virginina University Press, 2009. An excellent collection of essays on the legacy of racism in Florida. Included are essays on violence such “as debt peonage, convict labor and convict lease systems, race riots, and Florida’s leading the nation in the rate of per capita lynchings for a number of decades.”

“Palmetto Country.” By Stetson Kennedy. Florida A & M University Press, 1942, 1989. With an Appreciation from Woody Guthrie. Between 1937 and 1942, Kennedy headed the Florida Writers’ Project on folklore, oral history, and ethnic studies, traveling around the state gathering stories. A classic.

“Ecology of A Cracker Childhood. “By Janisse Ray. Milkweed Editions, 1999. Ray is a naturalist and environmentalist who says, “The landscape I was born to, that owns my body” is southern Georgia and where she now lives in northern Florida, both originally home to the endangered longleaf pine. She alternates memoir and ecology about this unique ecosystem.

“Florida’s Living Beaches. A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber.” By Blair and Dawn Witherington. Pineapple Press, 2007. A wonderful guide. Not meant to be comprehensive but full of great info. Did you know that a seabean is a fruit or seed that has made a sea voyage and that seabean season on Florida beaches is September to March? The section titled “The Hand of Man” tells about the roll-on deodorant balls on beaches world-wide.

“The Wild Heart of Florida. Florida Writers on Florida’s Wildlands.” Eds: Jeff Ripple and Susan Cerulean. University Press of Florida, 1999. Perhaps you’ve never seen this Florida?

“A History of Florida.” By Charlton W. Tebeau and William Marina. University of Miami Press, 1999. Beyond St. Augustine and alligators. The basic story with a whole lot of details.

“Florida’s Space Coast. The Impact of NASA on the Sunshine State.” William Barnaby Faherty. University of Florida Press, 2002. A personal favorite.


Space Heart -- Last installment

A Teflon tube -- Return -- First breath
My mother waits and waits. The surgery plan is for four hours but four hours, five, seven, nine pass while the OR nurses go in and out. They’ve already been informed that no one will be allowed to tell them anything until it’s over. My father reads much more of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich than he intended. Probably hanging on the wall is one of those plain white-faced clocks with big black hands and numbers that my parents don’t want to look at. Beyond those wide swinging doors, I am sleeping.
Finally the surgeon emerges, shakes my father’s hand. “Everything is fine,” he says. “A bit more complicated than expected. But Linda is fine.” It’s then he tells them for the first time the story he will have to repeat later so they can take it all in, a story that wasn’t in the diagrams on my mother’s bed: There wasn’t just the hole . . . we found more than expected . . . three veins on the wrong side of the heart . . . brain medically frozen for thirty minutes, blood flow stopped  . . . a piece of Teflon tubing through the hole to plug it and drain the veins into the right side . . . there permanently . . . should be no problem, should work  . . . the Teflon tube? . . . yes, the same thing they use in astronaut suits . . . no, it’s not usual . . . we improvised.

Hours later, the turtle scatters loose sand into a fine, thick cover for the eggs, and without looking back, makes her way again into the indifferent water.

When I finally wake up in my hospital room, the private duty nurse is sitting in a chair reading. My mother is just sitting. I try to say something but can’t. Is it over, I want to know. Both of them are immediately by my side.
“You won’t be able to talk for a little bit, honey,” my mother explains. “They had to make a hole in your windpipe and put a tube in so you could breathe better.”
“It’s a tracheotomy,” the nurse says coolly as she takes my pulse. “Nothing to worry about.”
You mean I couldn’t breathe, I want to ask. I put my hand to my neck and feel the plastic box inches before I touch where my skin should be, the hoses forcing oxygen into my lungs. After a few days, the box comes off, and I have to learn to breathe on my own through my neck. I write notes voraciously on little pads of paper to be heard. I change my new Barbie doll’s outfits. I watch cartoons from the television hanging from the ceiling. After another ten days, the doctor comes in to take out the tube.
“Now you’re going to have to learn how to breathe through your nose again,” he says as if it were a great joke. An oxygen mask is put over my face while he works. I feel a small tug as the tube comes out and a little gurgle, then the creepy feeling of stitches being sewn even though he’s “numbed it up” first. There will be a scar at the base of my neck as well as the looping one across my chest where they opened it up.
Everyone in the hospital room watches while the mask is removed. If I get this right, I will be able to leave the hospital tomorrow. At first I panic as nothing happens when I automatically work my neck muscles as I have been for the past week. Then my body remembers and takes over. My first inhale is a gasp. I think I cry a little bit.
Copyright 2016, Linda S. Buckmaster

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Space Heart - Part 3

The penultimate installment of "Space Heart
Launched -- A tender moment -- Going under -- The sea turtle emerges

My mother turns the transistor back on, which she had turned off to save the battery. We hear the announcer say it is two minutes and counting until liftoff. He tells us that Shepard will be able to talk to the control booth by space radio. Even my mother climbs onto the roof with us, holding our radio.
“One minute, thirty seconds to blastoff,” the announcer says in his flat countdown voice. “The Redstone rocket carrying Alan Shepard into space is venting its liquid oxygen,” he drones. “The cherry picker that carried him up to the capsule won’t be moved away from the gantry until the last minute in case it’s needed.”
We can’t see any of this, of course, since we’re almost ten miles away, just the flat-faced south shore of the Cape with a couple of things sticking up out of it.
“Sixty seconds and counting,” he notes. “Fifty seconds and counting.”
My brother and I huddle close to our mother. The sounds of hundreds of radios all tuned to the same station drift up to us. The waves lap noiselessly against the sand.
“We’re in the final stages of the countdown now,” the announcer’s voice rises just a little. “There goes the umbilical cord connecting the rocket to the rest of the world.”
“T-minus ten,” says the announcer. “Nine, eight, seven . . .”
“SIX, FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE,” everyone on the shore shouts out with the announcer, whose voice never changes.
“Zero,” the announcer says. “Ignition. We can see the ignition. The rocket is beginning to rise, agonizingly slowly. And here we go. We are going into space with Alan B. Shepard,” he declares. “It’s rising slowly, painfully slowly. It looks so lonesome with that little red spotlight on the tail.”
“There it is!” Ricky shouts simultaneously with possibly thousands of other people on the beach. We all point toward a big white-light ball followed by a long fuzzy tale of smoke, some of it pink from the sun. The Redstone emerges from the top. “There it is! There it is,” my brother says excitedly again and again. The sun suddenly flashes off the missile’s white side and everyone on the beach “ooohs.”
The announcer follows the track of the rocket as if it were a horse race: “At T-plus thirty seconds, he’s at five miles altitude. The first report from his microphone has just come in.
“He’s twelve miles offshore now, outside the range of land-based rescue teams, over a string of search-and-rescue boats supplied by the Navy,” the announcer informs us. An extra-bright long fiery flash spurts from the bottom of the rocket and a burning chunk falls away. We’re not worried. We’ve been trained to know that this is just the rocket’s first stage, which has used all its fuel, falling off and making its way down to the bottom of the ocean to join the debris of other rockets and the treasures of Spanish galleons.
The Freedom 7 arcs down range toward the Bahamas and disappears into the atmosphere. Thousands of arms shield eyes against the sun like a mass salute. We all rotate south like radar domes watching the sky where the missile could be, far beyond the sight of regular human eyes.
“T-plus two minutes,” the announcer continues. “He’s a busy boy up there now. At thirty-three hundred miles per hour, Alan Shepard is the world’s fastest man.  T-plus two and a half minutes at forty miles altitude. The world’s fastest traveling man. The engine’s burned its fuel. He’s almost weightless now.
“Ninety miles altitude!” the announcer shouts. “Alan Shepard is officially America’s first man in space.”
“Where is it, mommy?” Ricky asks as we all stare at the perfectly blue sky.
“It’s there,” I say, watching the forever blue. “It’s there.”

My mother tells the doctor in the weeks before the surgery I am not sleeping and everyone attributes it to the coming event. I am given tranquilizers and have a bad reaction, a hysterical one, thrashing and crying in my lavender bedroom. My father comes in and sits on the side of my bed. I smell the ice cream on his breath, which is what he eats at night when he’s trying to stay home and sober, making trip after trip to the refrigerator, the gentle opening and closing clicks of the freezer door like a lullaby. He strokes my sweaty forehead.
“I’m so sorry to be so much trouble to everyone,” I sob. “I’m sorry I have to have this operation, and Ricky has to stay at the Taylors while we’re away. And my kitty will be all alone—outside.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” my father says. “It’s not your fault. You’ll be all better soon, and then I’ll teach you how to do my special body flip into the waves.”
“You already taught me that,” I sniff.
“I know.”
“Will you make sure the garage door is left up high enough for Bennie to get under?” I ask.
“Uh huh. I know just how high to make it. Bennie will be fine.”
I start crying again. I don’t cry very much anymore, but I can’t seem to help it now. I can’t help thinking about Ricky and Bennie and Mommy and Daddy.
“I’m so sorry,” I bawl again. “I’m sorry to be keeping you home at night so you can’t go to the bar.”
My father holds his breath for a second. “I want to be here,” he says quietly. “I rather be here than at the bar. I want to be here with you and Mommy and Ricky.”
“And Bennie,” I sob.
“And Bennie.”

At the children’s ward the night before the surgery, I think it doesn’t look too bad because kids get to go up and down the hall in wheelchairs. I say “hi,” and they say “hi” back. Mommy and Daddy and Grandmom and Grandpa Joe walk me to my room, and a nurse follows us in. My mother carries my little suitcase with my pajamas and some new books.  Doctors, Residents, Interns, Nurses come in to listen to my heart. “They want to make sure it’s still there before they operate,” my father jokes.
They tell me how they will put the mask over my face. How I should just breathe normally, and the funny smelling gas will make me go to sleep. How the heart-lung machine will do my breathing and heartbeat for me so I can be very, very still for the doctors. How when I wake up, my heart will be fixed.
How they will put the mask over my face, and I should just breathe normally, and the funny smelling gas will make me go to sleep. How the heart-lung machine will do my breathing and heartbeat for me so I can be very, very still for the doctors, and when I wake up, my heart will be fixed. How they will put the mask over my face how I should just breathe normally and the funny smelling gas will make me go to sleep how the heart-lung machine will do my breathing and heartbeat for me . . .

Everything else drops away—boys, girls, trucks, flashlights on the beach. I am alone with the sand and the night around me. The moon, low on the horizon sends a long ray of yellow across the surface of the water. Palmettos sigh and crackle noisily with hidden night life. The moon-baked waves run toward the shore, over and over, the white foam edge glowing, then cresting to fall in a delicate fringe murmuring up the dark wet sand. The sound surrounds the beach, fills the air, repeats itself like a chant.
Soon something unformed rises and falls with the waves, closer and closer, rises and falls—a tiny head, front flippers, the big shell gliding through the water—until one wave strands her and she begins her slow plod up the sand. Her great shell dips side to side as she makes her way above the high tide line. She finds her spot and starts to dig, thrashing and throwing a halo of sand soft and bright with moonlight. She settles into her spot and drops her eggs one by one into the nest, her eyes dumb and unfocussed.
The moon climbs over the crest of the beach, hovers.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Space Heart, Part 2

 The second installment in the essay, "Space Heart." See a complete version at

 Countdown to blastoff -- Pursuing sea turtles -- Chimps & dogs & little girl hearts

At the children’s heart clinic in Miami where the catheterization is to take place, I walk in regally as if I were going on stage for one of my dance recitals. We always come to this string of wooden World War II Army hospital buildings for checkups, and I know well the sound of our footfalls on the unpainted floorboards as we move from exam room to exam room. There is no air conditioning here, but the stethoscopes always feel cool and friendly on my chest.
For this event, I know a tube is going to be inserted into the vein in my right arm, the good vein so perfectly visible at the right spot in the crease for blood tests. They’ll put me under so I’ll be asleep as they snake the tube up my vein, through the artery, and down into my heart. There the doctors will learn something new.  The grownups say this is the most important test yet. I get the feeling that what happens next depends on this one. I’ve overheard heard someone say, “this year,” and maybe I heard, “before it’s too late.” It seems like this is the beginning of a countdown.

“Pre-teens,” they call us, and we are on a church youth group “hayride” in the back of a pick-up truck with a couple of bales of hay. We bounce south along the narrow patchwork stretch of A1A, getting farther and farther from what we know as civilization and our ordinary lives. Mile after mile of scrubby gray-green palmettos pass as if waiting to be bulldozed into a shopping center. Beyond the narrow beam of the car headlights, the scrub now seems interesting and mysterious, maybe a bit dangerous.  We know that snakes and raccoons ramble in there, maybe even panthers or bad men, but we speed past them all in our innocent confidence.
We have a mission tonight, a reason to be here during the full moon in May. This stretch of beach beyond the Eau Gallie causeway and before the road ends at Sebastian Inlet is just sand, twenty miles of sand and waves that carry on seemingly forever, still wild enough that turtles come ashore this time of year to lay their eggs. We silly preadolescents focused mostly ourselves, the children of Cape Canaveral who have gone to the beaches a boring number of times to watch missile launches, are going to witness a natural event that has been going on for millennia.
South of Satellite Beach, the tiny towns thin out until the only lights on the side of the road are occasional motels built in the fifties or even the thirties. Appearing first is the warm glow above the palmettos, then the simple bulb illuminating a wooden or cement sign—the Surf Caster, the Dolphin, the Sea Turtle—and then the warm glow we leave behind.

On the way to Shepard’s launch, I get to sit in the front seat of the big Chevrolet, of course, because I’m older. Our car creeps down the very quiet First Street, the headlights pointing east toward  A1A. A tiny sliver of pink lies across the horizon as we turn onto the main road. A few other cars are on A1A, all heading in the same direction as us. My mother is quiet in the dashboard light, and even I don’t feel like talking so early. My brother sucks his thumb silently in the dark back seat. The car engine hums the way cars seem to hum at night.
This part of A1A is maybe ten feet above beach level so that in the brightening light on the right side of the road I can look over the tops of the palmetto scrub to the ocean, flatly spreading to Africa. The small morning waves roll languidly toward the shore just because they have no place else to go. The beach is deserted, and the rise of palmettos above it stretch consistently the same height and density for miles.
The sun suddenly pops its orange edge above the horizon, and by the time we enter the outskirts of Cocoa Beach, the whole big ball floats on the water. Maybe someday we’ll go to the sun, I think. After the moon, of course, as President Kennedy wants us to do this decade. My mother turns off the headlights and clicks on the radio. The only thing on either of the local AM stations is the launch.
Now there are a lot of cars going our way. In fact, the farther we get into Cocoa Beach, the more cars there are, and soon we are creeping along in a line. “It’ll take too long to get to the north end of the beach at this rate,” my mother says to me. “We’ll take the ramp at this end.”
My brother rouses in the back seat. “Are we there yet? When do we get to eat the sandwiches?”
Eventually, we turn right and drive down the ramp to the beach, following the other cars. My mother finds a place to park and starts to back in like my father taught her. A fat man from the next car over with New Jersey license plates stands behind us to direct her to stop just before the wheels hit the soft part of the sand.
We climb out of the car and my mother gets out the beach blanket, except she spreads it on the roof instead of the sand. She puts the transistor radio on there, too, and turns it on. A commercial for Ipana toothpaste plays. My mother says that must mean there’s a hold in the countdown if there are commercials. Ricky opens the cooler and pulls out the bag of Frito Corn Chips. “Can I open these?’ he asks.
“Later,” she says. “Get out your sand toys.”
“I don’t want to play,” he says. “I wanna see the rocket.”
He and I climb onto the car hood and scramble to the roof. As far as I can see in either direction hundreds, maybe thousands, of cars, pickup trucks, and even camper trailers are parked on the sand, their front grills pointed toward the surf. It’s more people than on a Sunday afternoon, and it’s really only seven o’clock on what would be a school day.
“It’s going to be a while,” my mother calls as she settles into her folding aluminum chair next to the car with her Good Housekeeping. She is wearing her prescription sunglasses with the green glass, and a cotton scarf tied lightly under her chin to keep her permanent from getting mussed up.
I  strip down to my bathing suit, then head for the water, watching for the traffic still coming down. The wet sand is cold from the night and the water chills me as I wade out. It’s almost flat calm, just small currents of waves rolling in. The sun, still low in the sky, is as white as if it has been up for hours, and a long ray of water sparkles under it, reaching from the horizon to the shore. My brother joins me and we hold hands, jumping up as the waves reach us, over and over as if it really matters if we jump the knee-high waves or not. He keeps shouting, “Mommy, look!” She looks up briefly from her magazine and waves.
After swimming and floating, and making a sand castle and moat, and climbing on and off the car roof, and not finding any kids I know, and talking to the very white, wrinkly people from up north who ask the question they always ask each other—where are you from—and eating corn chips, we’re bored. My mother is comparing notes on the Jersey shore with our next-car neighbors.
“When are they going to shoot the rocket off?” Ricky asks.
“Can I walk down the beach to that place that sells tourist stuff?” I ask.
“Why didn’t you bring a book?” my mother asks.
“Why didn’t you remind me?”
“Can we get a hot dog?”
“It’s almost two minutes!” shouts the fat man.

We turtle watchers finally pull over to a wide sandy patch and get out. Following a narrow path through the palmettos, we all know how to pick our way down to a beach. The lucky among us carry flashlights, and we turn them on to fleetingly light up a patch of wilderness preserved like a jungle movie set, our own light crisscrossing the others. Anything could be lurking in the palmettos with fronds that clatter noisily against each other in the breeze. Flashlights make the dark darker when the beam moves on, and in our hands, we possess the power to light it up again.
The narrow path requires single file, and the noisy voices stretch out along the way. Sometimes a squeal rises up, something about stepping on sticker burrs or being brushed by the rough frond of a palmetto. The rising moon sits enticingly on the edge of the water, and the familiar surf urges us on, while the beach ahead and the sandy path glow white. One by one, flashlights click off and voices quiet.  We jump off the low edge of the dune and run through night-cold dry sand to wet sand and the lick of water.
I doubt any of us have seen a sea turtle before except in an aquarium. Do the chaperones even know what to expect?  But anything is possible and probable in our era; we live with magic and mystery all the time. Rockets defy gravity, but prehistoric beasts ripe with eggs still climb out of the waves on a beach little changed from the days of the Ais Indians. On humid nights, we sit around our black-and-white televisions, insects crashing into the window screens, while reptiles creep up the beach under the moonlight. We giggle about boys at the edges of gymnasium sock hops as the cycle of life quietly turns elsewhere in the night. Growing up in the go-go era of the Space Coast Sixties, we expect no less. We know we’re going to defy gravity someday ourselves.

Stretched out across her chenille bedspread, my mother and I are having a talk. We have never done this before, even though at age eleven, there are some female things I probably need to know about eventually.  Last night, as I was putting the dried dishes away, I told her I knew I was having an operation soon because I’d overheard her telling Grandmom, so my mother has decided to set up this talk about open-heart surgery.
She has spread out on the bed diagrams of hearts, the insides of them on graph paper, different angles with arteries cut short, and pictures of the operating room and machines. We talk of chambers and auricles and ventricles and the recently invented heart-lung machine that is making it all possible at this point in history. She shows me the picture in Life magazine with the machine and the tubes stretching from it. They disappear under the sheet covering the body on the table surrounded by masked and gowned surgeons.
I understand. I heard Mrs. Moxham from down the street tell my mother I am just too young to know what to expect. But I know what to expect.  It’s science, and I do well in science.  I like having this important information that no one else at school has. I create a science project on poster board showing how everything will work. I like having this very special heart problem.
But at this point, I don’t know that the heart-lung machine has only been around a few years and has been used on just a handful of children. I don’t know about the dogs and the chimps in the early surgeries. How some bled out during their operations. And some were poisoned by the wrong kind of blood, and there might have been severe infections later for the others. I don’t know that surgeons need to experiment to learn how to do open heart surgery, how most of the successful ones so far have all been closed heart. But to really fix things, like, say, a hole between the auricles, they need to cut open the heart.
I understand scientific experiments. That’s what we need to do to get into space. Sometimes they don’t work, I know. Sometimes the rockets blow up right on the launch pad or just fall over. Or they go off course, and the people in the blockhouse blow them up on purpose. Or they lose thrust and fall into the ocean.
Eventually, the scientists feel good enough about what they learn to try humans. That’s how they did it at the Cape—chimps with wires and tubes clinging to their small bodies, then humans, astronauts, of course, in space suits. Grownup hearts, then children’s. Some don’t get any worse. One or two get better. Some die. But I don’t know that. 
Copyright 2016, Linda S. Buckmaster

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Space Heart, Part 1

Today starts the series of "Space Heart." Over the next four days, I'll be posting another installment. A version of the complete essay was originally published in "Solstice Literary Magazine." If you want to read it all at once, you can see it at
Space Heart, Part 1
Wherein our heroine's birth follows the first missile launch -- As murmur, they said -- "Where Progress Prevails" -- The family goes to a rocket launch
On July 24, 1950, Bumper V-2 blasts off a tiny hand-poured cement pad in the middle of the palmettos to become the first rocket launched from Cape Canaveral. As my mother waits out the sticky final months of her pregnancy with me two hundred miles down the coast in Miami, neither she nor my father realize this event will have anything to do with us, if they even hear about it. Although my father studies electrical engineering on the GI Bill, he never imagines he will one day become a rocket engineer. In fact, no one really can foresee the world that Bumper launches that humid morning.
Conditions are so primitive at the launch site that those working on it receive hazardous duty pay to compensate for the swamps, four species of poisonous snakes, and alligators. The aggressive salt marsh mosquitoes that attack the scientists are able to reproduce up to a million mosquitoes per square yard in one day. Bobcats and sleek Florida panthers roam the scrub. Cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlers slither around estuaries, across coastal dunes, and through pine flatlands that sit just inches above the water table. Directions written to the launch site along the sandy road include the admonition, “Don’t stop or you’ll bog down.”
My mother’s water breaks on the cusp of three hurricanes. September is prime hurricane season in Miami, and this year, several circle her due date. “Charlie,” “Dog,” and “Easy” bounce over the South Atlantic as my father carries my mother’s suitcase onto the hospital elevator. When the elevator door opens, the nurse picks up the suitcase, takes my mother’s hand, and closes the door in front of my father.  When my mother wakes some time later, the hurricanes are veering away from Miami, and she has a new baby girl sleeping down the hall in the nursery.
She holds me in her lap as we ride in my father’s ’46 Chevy along the narrow strip of asphalt that is Southwest 8th Street, the Tamiami Trail, stretching a hundred and ten miles through the Everglades to Tampa on the west coast.
Our trailer park blooms lush and green with tropical vegetation and raucous local birds and song birds just arriving from up north. The heavy smells of night-blooming jasmine and gardenias hang in the humidity. Variegated crocus and palms reach over the trailer park’s crushed coquina shell road as my mother pushes my stroller along, the small tires lazily crunching the shell with each roll. We stop at the common bathrooms housed in whitewashed stucco with green stains creeping up the outside.
At our trailer, chameleons scurry across the screens of the porch my father built as our living room. My mother, who grew up in the same South Philadelphia neighborhood as my father, puts me out in my playpen in just a diaper, because what could be better for a young child than that fresh Florida air?

 My bare chest presses against the cold x-ray plate. “Hold your breath,” the cheerful technician says. The familiar whirring sound begins and stops. “Breathe.” I exhale.
“Good girl.” She comes out of the booth and clanks the film plate out of its holder and clanks in another. I am always a good girl. Even if it is one of those x-rays with gagging down chalky goo to light up my insides, I stand straight and stretch my arms long around the plate, never moving during that held breath. Every six months, the Doctors, the Interns, the Residents, the Nurses come to listen to my heart with their flat metal disks—a murmur, they had said at three months, hidden in the depths. Sometimes they attach wires cling to my small body that cling like praying mantis, their delicate feet the suction cups.
“A hole between the auricles,” they teach me to say. How lucky I am to be living in this era with new discoveries every year, they say; children before weren’t so lucky. My mother believes in technology and doctors; after all, my father is a rocket engineer. They will discover a way to fix my small heart, she is sure, just like they are sending men into outer space. We are not afraid.
And so a childhood of drawn blood, questions and tests until the day when they might know how to do the surgery that will be needed, while I imagine that murmur as tiny lapping waves cooing over dark wet sand.

 A full-size cement dolphin at the entrance to the Sands Motel rises continuously out of the waves, the spotlight at night making shadows on the cement foam. Around a horseshoe-shaped patio court, dim lights illuminate the walkway. The ceaseless sound of surf, louder at high tide, more faraway at low, surrounds us. In the years after Bumper, my family, now with a little brother, moves to Brevard County, home of the Cape. Just about everyone is from someplace else like us, and the County population grows three hundred and seventy-five percent. I celebrate my eighth birthday here at the Sands as we wait for our cement-block “ranch” house to be built in the new subdivision.
My town of Satellite Beach is incorporated in 1957 after Percy Hedgecock and his brothers Shine and Hub begin developing the hundred and thirty acres of saw palmetto and oak scrub they had purchased just months earlier. The land is “wild, raw, and unimproved,” as the documents read. A giant metal balloon in the shape and features of a satellite is erected on the town’s main road, State Road A1A running south to Sebastian Inlet.
Building and construction are a way of life as bulldozers push housing developments, shopping plazas, schools, and new businesses out of the palmettos.  Ditching and draining by big machinery continue day and night turning wetlands into dry land for development. Mosquitoes are conquered with DDT, at least partially. The County population doubles again in 1960, and Satellite Beach adopts as its slogan, “Where Progress Prevails.”
An evangelical faith in technology and its role in creating good for all mankind sweeps down the beach. The space industry is going to prove our superiority to the atheistic Soviets, as all America knows, and should we flag in our efforts or will, the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik passing overhead every ninety-eight minutes eggs us on. The whole world is watching us and our little strip of sand. We see ourselves and our rockets on the TV news, in Life magazine, in newsreels before movies. The country is counting on us, all the families involved with the space industry, and no one is looking back. A newspaper photo with the King and Queen of Belgium among the crowd at a launch shows everyone in sunglasses, a few shielding their eyes from the glare, and all looking in exactly the same direction—up.

My bedroom is still dark when my mother comes in to wake me. “Time to get up, honey” she says.  “Mmph,” I grunt and pull the sticky sheet above my head. Outside my window, insects, night birds I don’t know the names for, maybe armadillos, and gnawing, nibbling things click and scratch sporadically as they finish their nightly wandering.
“Remember how we are going to the beach to see Alan Shepard’s rocket take off?” my mother nudges me. At the word “beach,” my eyes open. Assured I will get up, my mother clicks on the ballerina lamp on my bureau as she leaves. My six-year-old brother is already bounding into my room. “Come on,” he says. “We don’t want to miss it.”
“Get out of my room,” I growl at him in my best ten-year-old sister voice.
In the dark morning, the kitchen and dining room are lit like a stage set waiting for us to prepare for our secret mission. We’re going on an adventure, my sleep-fuzzy mind starts to realize as my mother puts bowls of Rice Krispies in front of my brother and me. My mother already has the radio on, and sure enough, the announcer tells us importantly, “Today, May 5, 1961, we are going into space with Alan B. Shepard.”
“He’s scheduled to take off very early,” my mother tells us, “but Daddy says there are always holds in the countdown so we might have to wait for a while.”
Daddy is already out at Cape Canaveral. When the countdowns get to a certain point, as everyone in school knows, the engineers are locked into the launch blockhouse for security, and the flight coordinators, like my father, stay at their stations at Mission Control a couple of miles away. My brother Ricky, my mother, and I will be going to Cocoa Beach, which lies between our beach and the Cape, to watch the launch, driving down onto the hard-packed sand and finding a good place to park. My mother has already filled the small aluminum cooler with sodas and bologna sandwiches.
Not only that, but they’ve closed school for the day so we can all watch this historic event. We have lots of historic events living near Cape Canaveral. Alan Shepard will be the first American in space, flying Freedom 7. We kids can recite the names of all the Mercury 7 Astronauts. My friend Linda S. and I (there are five Lindas in my class) call them out as we jump rope: “Car-penter, Coo-per, Glenn, and Grissom. Schir-ra, Shepard, and Mis-ter Slayton.”
I pull on my two-piece bathing suit, then a clean shorts set over it, the pink seersucker one with matching rickrack on the bottom of the legs and blouse, the one my mother finished just last week. Even though it’s a warm May morning, the mugginess makes me a little cold and I put on my father’s nylon windbreaker. It smells like Old Spice and cigarettes. My mother turns the lights off as we go out the front door. The fronds on our palm trees hang slackly in the stillness. Bright stars dot the blue-black sky.
 Copyright Linda S. Buckmaster, 2016