The second installment in the essay, "Space Heart." See a complete version at
Countdown to blastoff -- Pursuing sea turtles -- Chimps & dogs & little girl hearts
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