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.
“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.
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.