My father, a career IBM man, was one of myriad late-1960’s NASA-related personnel contracted in the effort to beat the Russians to the moon, and a few months in “I Dream Of Jeannie”-era Cocoa Beach was just part of the drill. It remains amazing to me how antiquated, yet currently unfathomable, is the notion of a man traipsing across Tranquility Base, golf club in hand.
Had an atomic bomb dropped on Huntsville, Alabama, in 1969, the radiation blast shadow of my mother etched onto the Winn-Dixie would have outlined go-go boots and a tall wig. She wasn’t a swinger by any stretch of the imagination, but there was a brief period where she made a run at being mod, and I remember it as embarrassing, even to a ten year old. But I was certainly in no position to throw stones, having been tricked by my idols, The Monkees, into pushing the limits of our neighborhood’s unwritten fashion boundaries. Looking back at some of the outfits I wore that year, I clearly outdistanced my mother in a mad dash to the edge of humiliation. Sporting an oversized peace medallion and white bell bottomed hip huggers held in place by a doublewide brown leather belt, fifth grade found me waiting for the bus, convinced I held an inside track on groovy style. Life in Rocket City, USA, home of the Redstone Arsenal, was a Deep South suburban backstage pass to the Cold War/Space Race double-bill. But my family had bigger concerns, for we had discovered the Spiegel clothing catalog, and, just like NASA superstar astronauts, harbored no fear in blasting off into the cosmos to explore new galaxies. As F-106’s broke the sound barrier above us, we must have imagined that all the other kids in America were also busy circling catalog models sporting suede jeans, groovy neckerchiefs, and Nehru jackets for their birthdays and Christmas wish lists. Two-tone platform heeled shoes were the final frontier.
Besides ordering the latest from Spiegel and Sears, there were Mom’s sewing machine and ironing board, the Saturn Five and Lunar Module of home fashion, launching and landing a payload of outfits on planet Huntsville, mostly aimed at herself and my sister, Kristy. Everyone, it seems, was making clothes then, so the den of our split-level ranch was scattered with Butterick culottes and scooter-skirt patterns among the boys’ packs of baseball cards. Hanging on the walls of my bedroom were signed pictures of legendary spacemen Wally Schirra, Gus Grissom, and Ed White. Schirra was the James Dean of NASA, a cool rebel, famous for playing a harmonica in space, while Grissom and White had died tragically on the Apollo 1 launchpad, thus cementing their place in American aeronautic rock n’ roll history. But more importantly, in the run-up to the Saturn 5 lift-off, our mailman delivered an Osmond Brothers wide-collar royal blue, long-sleeved shirt with French cuffs, along with a paisley bandana, which I secured around my neck with a friendship ring borrowed from my mom.
Hidden hazards lurked behind fashion’s front lines, and also in the branches of the poplar trees that lined our backyard, which my mother, Joanie, learned the hard way that summer when a cicada hurtled itself directly into the open back of her one piece Pepto-Bismol-pink culottes set. The eagle had landed, and Joanie scrambled over our backyard fence, every bit the modern housewife. In a wig with a large flying insect in her shorts, she made a beeline for the Gore’s house while frantically reaching to grapple with a lower back zipper. If she couldn’t get it undone, there’d be no one to blame but herself or McCall’s. Later, at neighborhood game nights, Jay Gore would double over his hand-tooled Aggravation board, banging his beer on the table like Khrushchev’s shoe, howling in laughter about my mother sprinting through their kitchen in her bra, culottes abandoned on the linoleum.
On July 20, just two days after Chappaquiddick, a few weeks before the Manson murders and Woodstock, NASA managed to put a man on the moon.
Motel living for a few months in 1967 Cocoa Beach, Florida, could’ve been worse. For one thing, I had a sweet pair of clam diggers with a real braided rope belt. We bunked and played while dad commuted to Cape Canaveral. The Del Ray’s owner took my siblings and I under his wing, walking us across the hot sand to tidal pools crawling with fiddler crabs, which we learned to collect for bait. Hooking the angry little sea bugs to poles, Bill showed us how to fish off the pier, and one day, one of us caught a blowfish that almost exploded. Meanwhile, the real explosions happened on the occasions my father woke us before dawn to hurry down the beach to look across the bay towards Cape Canaveral’s launchpad. With sand in our pajamas, we waited for the rumble, and shielded our eyes against the spectacular ascent of a satellite into the dusky atmosphere. The beach lit up gaudily in the rocket’s red glare. Two years later, we’d return to Florida for the giant leap.
Back in Huntsville, Life magazine, although always a player, became as crucial to the family den’s library as Spiegel’s and TV Guide. Once a week our mailbox held a photo diary of a world turned upside down: Martin Luther King, prone, his team pointing frantically towards a window; a busboy lifting Bobby Kennedy’s head; the execution of a Viet Cong guerilla on a Saigon street. To an eleven year old, the exhilarating sonic booms that rattled our windows began to sound like the war had come home. Huntley and Brinkley confirmed Life’s visceral images every night at six o’clock. 1969 was looking pretty bleak. But then it happened. From a crappy Panama City motel room during a Florida vacation on July 20th, we jostled the TV’s rabbit ears antenna into cooperation, and through the rolling static, we watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounce across the moonscape like Pillsbury Doughboys. Between the first spacewalk and Apollo 11, I went from crew cuts to bangs in Rocket City, and finally, we had achieved our mission; men were playing golf on the moon, wearing the best outfits ever. America shared the televised touchdown and moonwalk with the world, but we NASA kids owned the event.
Charles Manson took the fun out of everything. Beards were suddenly scary, and “Helter Skelter” wasn’t just another Beatles song anymore. Woodstock sounded like an excellent trip at first, but the ensuing photographs of the festival were confusing and off-putting, portraits of mud pits full of naked people and hairy-faced guys with wild eyes who might try to kill you and write on your walls in blood. Nevertheless, Mom was experimenting with long vests and polyester stovepipe pants, while I drew peace signs and wrote “LOVE” in balloon letters on my math notebook. Billy Joe Kennemore, who from second grade sat alphabetically behind me in homeroom and was my annual locker mate, now had an Afro with a fisted pick jammed defiantly into it, which was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, so I began to hone my skills at sketching the “Soul Power!” salute.
Some say the Sixties died to strains of “Sympathy For The Devil”, but for me, that bell tolled much later, on a day in the spring of 1971, when Billy Joe and I, still connected through random alphabetical camaraderie, were at our sixth grade locker, shooting the breeze. A couple of brothers from another homeroom, tall guys who apparently had enjoyed serious growth spurts over winter break, informed us in no uncertain terms that Billy Joe would not be sharing a locker with me anymore. Billy Joe didn’t look at me, maybe couldn’t look at me. I like to imagine that he felt as bad about the situation as I did. He collected his books, walked down the hallway with his new friends, and we never really talked again.
I continued to experiment with fashion, and in spite of my sole run-in with Black Panther-style elements of my Alabama elementary school, I eventually reached my then-ultimate sartorial goal by procuring Soul Train-worthy, two-tone platform heel shoes. My mother, by then, had abandoned the cause, reverting to her basics, curlers and Tareytons. She was tired, choosing rather not to fight nor switch. P.O.W. bracelets were just coming in, but I, too, was mostly done with love beads and other accessories, except for the ID bracelets used to signify the few and far between going steady with a girl. There is, however, a medallion that I carry with me to this day, one given to my father, its case inscribed: “For Your Contribution To The United States Space Program.” Gold-colored and the size of a Kennedy half-dollar, one side of the coin bears the image of an astronaut in front of a flag planted in the lunarscape with “The Eagle Has Landed” scrolled above, and “July 20, 1969” below. The other side reads: “This Medallion contains metal from spacecrafts Columbia and Eagle, that took astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins on their historic Apollo 11 mission that resulted in the first landing of man on the moon.”