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