Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Super Cooper in a 22 Looper"

My son-in-law and I began watching When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions, a DVD set from Discovery Channel, last night.

We watched the better part of the first two episodes which cover the run-up to and experience of the Mercury (single-man) and Gemini (two-man) space flights. There is lots of footage similar to what I recall seeing on TV, but a whole lot more, including fascinating interviews with the men who were involved in the events of those days--from flight controllers to astronauts--as well as footage from inside the space capsules--things we never saw on TV at the time.

And Discover knows how to tell the story with emotion. When ground control loses radio contact with the space capsule--even though the event occurred 45 years ago or more--and even though I thought I knew the final outcome of the story, my heart was in my throat.

So there I was watching these historical archives and being astonished at what I was seeing: Major space flights going up every three months; astronauts' names I remember; even a couple of flights--like the one I referenced in the title of this post: As we watched the program, as soon as Gordon Cooper's name was mentioned in association with the Mercury 7 flight, I blurted out the headline I remembered from our local newspaper. Yep: "Super Cooper in a 22-Looper."

What shocked me: the mission's date--May 15 to 16, 1963. I was 7 years old!

I had thought the flight had come three or four years later, after I had become a paperboy.

That memory, then, inspired me to think of what other headlines or news events I remember from my early childhood.

Only two stand out in my mind.

1) The day Kennedy was shot (I had to look it up): November 22, 1963. I was in 3rd grade. In our school, all the kids in the class were brought to the bathroom at the same time to "do their business."

I remember filing back down the hall toward the classroom when one of the teachers came down the hall, crying: "The president has been shot!"

We were in Upstate New York at the time, so it would have had to have been about 2 o'clock in the afternoon. (I looked it up: Kennedy was shot at 12:30 p.m. Central Time; he was declared dead at 1:00 p.m.)

I remember just a bit about the funeral, though I wonder how much of that memory was actually shaped by newsreels since.

2) I remember watching Winston Churchill's funeral cortège. A very solemn, black affair. Again, I looked it up: it occurred in late January 1965.

3) One other very specific newscast I remember: the day they played taps on the hippie movement in San Francisco.

Our family was living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time. And hippies would be a major social force for many years to come. But I remember the San Francisco news station declaring the death of the hippie culture. Very unnerving, because I was just getting used to the idea, and I was attracted to the general freewheeling, fun-loving, live-and-let-live approach to life that the hippies seemed to advocate.

I looked this one up, too. And there is the date: October 6, 1967--the tail end of the "Summer of Love," not even five months after Scott McKenzie's song "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" was first released and, honestly, years before the movement would truly die.

--Strange. Why is it all the sad stories that most caught my attention?

One last story and then I'll quit. Actually two.

Story #4: I rode my bike through the middle of an anti-war protest in Palo Alto--the Stanford Industrial Park. It was a regular school day morning. (Maybe 7:30?) I was riding from our apartment in Escondido Village on the Stanford Campus, to Terman Junior High over on Arastradero Rd. I would ride down Hanover Street, through the Hewlett Packard parking lot, across the railroad tracks and through the neighborhood till I could cross Arastradero into the school parking lot.

Some demonstrators had turned over a school bus in the middle of the intersection at Hanover Street and Page Mill Road. As I rode down Hanover toward the intersection from the campus, I could see darkly-clad figures darting in and out among the buildings on either side of the road. Some were police in full riot gear, others were civilians (anti-war protesters). . . . --A very surreal experience.

And then, lastly: #5: Kent State. May 4, 1970. By this point my family was back in upstate New York. I was in ninth grade. The news of the students having been killed shocked, sickened, and disgusted me. I had seen too many protests "close up" while on the Stanford campus. I had seen the anger and hatred and seething violence just below the surface. After all, this was post Martin Luther King's assassination. This was post Bobby Kennedy's assassination. This was post the 1968 Democratic National Convention at which there was so much violence.

I wrote a poem to express my grief:
Where’s our reason?
People shout and incite
Riots while men with rifles
Stand by.

After order is asked
And warnings are given,
The riotous crowd
Throws hate.

Insults freely flow
From snarling lips. . . .
The rifles fire.
More hate comes back. . . .
Smoke of battle
Jerks around.
(Violence protests war.
Hate burns worse than Napalm.)

Around the States
Radios hurtle their message:
“Four Students Killed—
More Injured.”
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