My brother Ric and I board the bus for the "Cape Canaveral Then & Now" tour.
The Kennedy Space Center is the official name of this tourist attraction, museum, and historical theme park. 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. Standing in line isn’t so bad, though, because 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, of course, always entered through the South Gate since my hometown of Satellite Beach is south of the Cape.
For a family outing one time, he drove us up to the South Gate and stopped since family members without badges weren’t allowed. We gazed for a few moments at the other side; the acres of palmettos looked just like the side we were on, and 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 found the right spot to park 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 away food. 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.
Among the other tourists 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 their county, or their former country, and us, they are dressed 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 had 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 the little dog that was 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 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, say, the Disney World complex of solid cement.
Our tour guide, Dave, is telling us that what is now called the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, or the old Cape, is a mostly natural seventeen thousand acres. Right on cue, we spot a couple of armadillos poking along the side of the road. Dave is sure to let us know about the four species of poisonous snakes and alligators we could see. 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 consistently the same height 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 is filling us in on many facts that involve many 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 that have been spent over the past fifty years on maintaining our space superiority. I have figured out that the “now” of this “then and now” tour is about drumming up taxpayer interest, support, and patriotism for the projects now in process for the future, maybe playing on the nostalgia like you would about the railroads.
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. It’s hard for me to differentiate between the industry’s fluctuations in fortune and my family’s.
Dave is also full of anecdotes. He 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 every year by the enterprising Chevy dealer Jim Rathman, the drag racing down North Atlantic Avenue.
He misses the one about my father somehow making 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 kisses the palm tree before he passes out in the front seat. And 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 he 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 bail him out on the mainland.
Dave mentions Bernard’s Surf, the watering hole where the astronauts and press corps mingled. Of course, Dave wouldn’t have known that at the bar of Bernard’s Surf, 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. He left the pile of bills in front of him so he could just tell the bartender to “take it out of there and something for yourself.” Whatever was left at the end of the night went into my dad’s 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 everyone knew that what happened on the Space Coast, stayed on the Space Coast. I wonder, though, what happens if you actually lived here? Does it just stay forever? To be continued . . . Fourth and final installment next.
Copyright 2016, Linda S. Buckmaster