Excerpt from Where’s the Moon?
by Ann McCutchan
under contract with Texas A & M University Press
Seventh Generation Series
October is south Florida’s golden month. Summer’s humidity has finally lifted, and the sun is no longer a glaring orb, but a burnished doubloon, hanging over a cooling, swaying ocean. You sense it when, wading out of the water to dry sand, you’re caught by a chill frisson, and if you’re a young girl, you hurry for the beach towel your mother extends, pass up the rippling blue shallows in which you loitered only last week.
Now, a tepid breeze swoops down Ft. Lauderdale’s beach; your teeth clatter a moment. You buff the sea floor’s sticky grit from your limbs, from your checked gingham bathing suit. You lift a cotton shift over your head, feel it settle over your salt skin, catching on a sand blister here and there, and tie the towel around your waist, trudge barefoot through the deep yellow grain closing in over your ankles at every step. Up the slight hill you go, with your mother and sister, to the angle parking under the palms and tall stands of oleander, the syrupy fragrance enfolding you, whirling around your damp head like a rope of sweet taffy, and you slow down, you can’t help it, the heavy sand, the pull of blooms, your body exhausted by the pounding, sucking Atlantic.
You reach the brown Hudson sedan, more than a decade old, now, its round, old-fashioned rump gleaming in the afternoon sun, its windows cracked slightly for air. You and your sister scramble into the Hudson’s back seat and grab at the wide sateen travel pouch before you. In this, you stow your rubber bathing caps and flip flops, alongside the card games and crayons left from the annual August vacation in the Smoky Mountains. You don’t color any more — you’re eleven — but on car trips, you like to regress a little, drawing cartoon characters with giant heads, mashing them against the windows so people in passing cars can see. Now Mommy, who you’ve been getting up the courage to call Mom, as teenagers would do, starts the car, and soon you’re gliding north on A1A, past Lauderdale-by-the Sea, past gated Sea Ranch Lakes, to the left-hand turn into Bel-Air, its concrete sign painted white with raised aqua letters, flanked by plantings of red flowering hibiscus and croton, their green, red and yellow tongue-leaves jostling each time a car turns in, moving the air.
Much later in your life, you’ll visit Hawaii and imagine you’ve come home, and you’ll think of how the end of your childhood in south Florida coincided with the first swell of your breasts, and with the day you and your mother and sister rolled into the gravel driveway of 1961 S.E. 16th Court to meet Daddy, home from the insurance office, home with the news you were moving in two weeks to a small fishing and citrus town halfway up the coast, a wide-spot-in-the-road none of your classmates, transplanted Northerners like you, have ever heard of, a deeply Southern town called Titusville, which had recently designated itself “The Gateway to the Galaxies.”
Mom and Dad undoubtedly discussed the move together, but it would have been his idea. She once said that was the way it went: he’d brood about some major decision for days or weeks or months, turning it over and over in his mind, and one day announce his plan. After the shock of it, she’d cross-examine him: Have you thought of this? Of that? And always, he had thought of everything, down to the last detail, and the plan was airtight, and wise. His ingrown intelligence. His practiced self-reliance. Only recently, when a family historian I tracked down described the McCutchan temperament as “self-contained, private but not repressed, highly focused” did my understanding of him widen, though I admit that, so many years after his death, I could be making parts of him up. The historian added: “McCutchans are verbal, sometimes eloquent – but will not give up secrets, or even ‘the information.’ Also, their focus drives them to see things to the end – and then some. Many are given to wanderlust.”
Our move from Washington, D.C. to south Florida had been exciting, based on professional opportunity in an exotic environment, a combination attractive to enterprising northerners like us. But with the Titusville move, something seemed to be off – there was no twirl around the kitchen. The reasons for leaving, some of which I might have understood at eleven, had they been laid out, were muddled. In sad tones, I told my sixth grade teacher and classmates I’d be gone soon. “We’re moving,” I said, lowering my head, as if I were guilty of something. Worse was surrendering my rented clarinet to the beginning band director, for I’d just started the instrument and although I’d picked it because a friend had, and I wanted to sit next to her in rehearsal, it already felt like an extension of my body. (Just so are important choices occasionally made.) Would I have another clarinet in the new place?
We sold the sandy old Hudson to a retired neighbor for fifty dollars. The jolly couple next door with the Arthur Godfrey record collection and the fat yellow dog named Gin threw us a good-bye dinner. My sister and I bid farewell to our favorite playmates, the Foglia kids across the street, who, during hurricanes, were permitted to race outside, tie a long rope to their station wagon door and hold tight to the line, screaming with feral joy, as the wind whipped them back and forth in the driveway.
One day, three men and a Mayflower truck collected our furniture, and we loaded clothes, linens and kitchen supplies into a small U-Haul hooked to the orange and white Fairlane with the rocket tailfins. On the morning we left, Mom drove, I sat next to her, and Mary took the backseat with our games and books. Just us three, Daddy’s girls. He’d gone ahead on his own. As we rolled out of Bel-Air, the U-Haul bucked a little on the numbered asphalt lanes, courts, and terraces, so we slowed down, past the over-chlorinated community swimming pool, where I’d learned to dive, badly, and the deep, undeveloped thicket across from it, where I’d wandered by myself among pines festooned with morning glories, their purple faces intermittently split by sunbeams shooting through the hammock. I gazed at my private retreat, then sideways at my mother, who was uncharacteristically quiet at the start of an outing, and noticed her cheeks were wet.
What Mom wept over was too private to question, for she rarely shed tears, but I assumed she was sad to leave Ft. Lauderdale.
Of the four of us, she had engaged most with the south Florida landscape, collecting seashells in a velvety green box (stowed now in my Texas house), poking at a Portuguese man o’ war washed up on the beach, its wavy, venomous tentacles spreading from the balloon-like bladder that once floated on the ocean’s surface. You never saw just one man o’ war, but a fleet, drifting like the ships they were named for. Mom had also taken great interest in the giant sea turtles that, during the warmer months, nested on the beach. Several times, she rounded us up in the middle of the night to go turtle-watching with friends and neighbors. We’d roll toward the ocean in the Hudson, low beams only, and from the parking lot, step carefully, toes first into the sand, so as not to make a sound. Finding the others, we waited in the dark until someone detected the soft, slow scrape of a turtle shell on wet meal, and silently migrated toward it. We could just make out the turtle’s dome-like carapace as she ambulated up from shore, hauling herself to a dry spot to begin scooping a nest with her rear flippers. The sand flew. By now, one or two in our group had trained a flashlight on the turtle’s backside; she was deep into her ritual, oblivious to us, and eventually she lowered herself into the fresh cradle and deposited her eggs – dozens of them, the size of ping-pong balls. Finished, the mother turtle flipped sand over her brood and lumbered back to the sea. It would be as long as two months before the hatchlings emerged. Though such turtle-watching parties are discouraged today, we were fortunate to have witnessed those doleful creatures, which, for millions of years, have given birth in an ancient, inalterable trance.
Was this, the natural world of south coastal Florida, what Mom would miss? Or was it her job, her friends? I’ll never know, but by the time we hit U.S. 1, the coastal highway, she had recovered, chatting about the adventure ahead. She was, it seemed, wired for optimism, for looking forward to what comes next, imagining the good anything will lead to. In my mother lay the confidence that everything in the universe was somehow connected, and all you had to do was step into its marvelous web, contribute your share of energy, and marvel at the surprises and opportunities certain to come your way.
What prompted my father to pull us out of school nine months after John Glenn’s orbits and drag or spirit us up the coast is all conjecture. But here are some facts and circumstances and words.
On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy delivered his famous Moon Speech at Rice University Stadium in Houston, a few miles north of the new Manned Spacecraft Center. It was his more public vow, and a slam-dunk, now that John Glenn had demonstrated America’s powerful technology, had witnessed that extraordinary view of Earth as a lively, precious ball in Space, and shown, by inference, America’s ability to dominate it.
The nation was ready and eager to listen – had been prepared, in fact, by a clever marketing strategy. In a reversal of standard military secrecy, NASA had issued generous previews of impending missions, even given Life magazine an exclusive contract for personal stories about the astronauts and their families. The original seven had appeared on a cover in 1959, their wives the following week. “Astronauts’ Wives: Their Inner Thoughts, Worries,” the teaser promised, above the proud support team in boat-neck blouses and crimson lipstick.
In Houston, those surrounding the youngest president were mostly men, dressed, as he was, in dark suits, white shirts, and ties, faces reddening under the open sky, fanning themselves with paper programs, a few sweating it out under ten-gallon hats. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, for whom the Houston center would one day be renamed, sat behind President Kennedy, to the right, one elbow cocked on an armrest, his fist pressed into his cheek. He and everyone around him, especially those in dark sunglasses, looked mad or suspicious, but that’s what happens to your face under the intense southern sun, when the only defenses you have are shades and your eyebrows.
In his opening remarks, President Kennedy said,
. . . we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.
Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation’s own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.
The message was clear: Americans were great, but in danger of falling behind. We must persevere and triumph in the Space Race, the Cold War.
Then Kennedy put a dizzying spin on that message, collapsing history – as Glenn’s feat had collapsed time — so suddenly and completely one felt strapped to a blazing comet. It was impossible to hop off, now.
No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half a century . . . About 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago . . . the steam engine provided a new source of power. . . Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.
It was the rhetoric of the motivational speaker, an arms gathering, a rousing hymn to action, familiar – and dear — to all Americans since the first colonial Bible-thumping. We had conquered our own country once upon a time, said the President, and now, by way of a moonquest, we would conquer another, and perhaps two: the Soviet Union, and Outer Space. Plus, we would reap advances in education, science and technology, and jobs. The vehicle: “a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body . . . “
Who would not cheer the image of a colossal Saturn V rocket heaved upward with an oilfield’s worth of jet fuel, a spaceship so huge it would require its own building for assembly, that building so vast it would have its own weather system? Who would not practically faint at the idea of accomplishing this by 1969, a mere seven years away? It was, even to those suspicious of overblown rhetoric, of politics, a glorious moment. It was the future; it was science fiction come to pass.
On October 14 an American U-2 flew over Cuba and returned with photos of Soviet nuclear weapons. On the 15th, the worst stand-off between the U.S. and the Soviet Union ensued, with the very real threat of nuclear war. Yet we didn’t know we were vulnerable until October 22, when the President, in a televised address, announced there were Soviet missiles in Cuba. By then, the armed forces were mobilizing.
“I remember as a teenager watching all the trains come through town, loaded with tanks,” an elderly state archivist and Marianna, Florida native told me one afternoon, as I tried to divine my father’s motive to go up to Titusville. “Everyone was scared – especially the old-timers, the ones who served in World War II.” A friend who grew up on the Gulf Coast near Tampa described the barbed wire coiled up and down the beaches. “All the kids were freaked out,” he said.
The crisis ended on the 28th, when Nikita Khrushchev announced he had ordered the Soviet missile bases in Cuba removed. Analysts continue to debate the private exchanges between Khrushchev and Kennedy, but public reaction to the crisis, especially in Florida, was pure fright. Would Florida have taken Russia’s opening volley? It’s hard to say. The missiles rumored to be perched on high alert in Cuba could have hit nearly any U.S. city in minutes. As with the 9/11 catastrophe, New York or Washington might sooner have drawn the enemy’s sight. But when you’re a just a boat float away, you imagine you’ll be first.
A few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, Mom and Dad said we were moving, and two weeks later, we rolled out of Bel-Air. We celebrated Thanksgiving in Titusville with an improvised feast in our rented duplex or possibly fried clams and peppermint stick ice cream at Howard Johnson’s, the fanciest restaurant in town, by the Indian River, the long waterway separating the town from the Merritt Island and the Space Center. Dad would have wanted to treat us, lift our sad, mad, bewildered spirits.
But was his decision to move borne of the missile crisis? As my father’s daughter, I think it may have been a contributing factor, but not the whole story. I say he’d been brooding on it since the year before, when the President promised we’d land a man on the moon by the end of the 60s – or, because he had known his way around war and opportunity even longer. The bull market begun in 1949 still raged; it was, Dad probably thought, a good climate for new business ventures. He watched as the Space Coast villages began to grow, imagined a jump out of the corporate world to an independent business in a boomtown. And after the Moon Speech in September, and the averted crisis in October, he decided the time was ripe, and we got the hell out of a beautiful, tropical Dodge. On November 26, so Brevard County’s records say, my sister and I entered the Titusville schools. Our Ft. Lauderdale transcripts, an afterthought, arrived from Broward County in December.
305 Central Avenue, Titusville, was a short dirt road bushwhacked out of a mess of scrub palmetto and vines for no other reason than to throw up a line of identical concrete block duplexes — indeed, the two-bedroom semi-furnished unit Dad rented for us was painted the same weary taupe as its three flat-roofed companions. It had no gutters, and when it rained, water spilled off the roof straight into the sand and scrawny bushes beneath the windows, splashing up against the homely exterior, leaving a residue of dirt and leaves, and a loamy smell I would always associate with the town.
We were familiar, of course, with block housing. Our ranch home in Ft. Lauderdale had been assembled on a concrete slab of concrete blocks, with no siding masking the simple materials, and like millions of these “little dugans” (as Dad called them) in the Sunshine State, painted contractor white with primary or pastel trim and surrounded by bright hibiscus plantings. But the drab duplex on Central Avenue had none of that tropical cheer – not even one of those screened front doors with the tin egret tacked into the frame. It looked to me like Army facilities, and might as well have been. After all, we were now participating in a war.
During World War II, the government had plopped a grand total of 172 military installations onto Florida’s panhandled peninsula, and one of them, Banana River Naval Air Station, Cape Canaveral, became the platform for the country’s space missions. The military had used concrete blocks for years, for foxholes and temporary shelters, the idea stretching back to 1906, the year Thomas Edison, visionary, sometime Florida resident, and proud owner of a new cement plant announced, “I am going to live to see the day when a working man’s house can be built of concrete in a week . . . If I succeed, it will take from the city slums everybody who is worth taking.” When the winter-white flight to sunny Florida commenced after the war, builders looking for cheap, easy construction may have looked to military bases for inspiration. The entire state of Florida, a thin sheet of earth floating on perforated limestone and water, erupted with above-ground bunkers, cooled by way of hand-cranked windows and decorated with more concrete: circular driveways, flower boxes, birdbaths from which chalk-white cherubs, flip-tailed fish, or purse-lipped bathing beauties burbled ardently oxygenated water.
Thus, the evening Mom and Mary and I turned into the muddy dun of Central Avenue, it felt as if we had arrived in reduced circumstances. The truth was, Titusville, caught off-guard by President Kennedy’s vow to land a man on the moon, was short on housing, and Dad had been lucky to snag 305, while other newcomers camped out in motels and trailer parks, some for months. One family we knew, coming down from Jacksonville, stayed an hour from Titusville at a relative’s lake house that, though equipped with a toilet, had no tub or hot water; through the better part of a summer, as their new home was completed, everyone bathed in the lake.
Our neighbors on Central Avenue were NASA employees on temporary or long-term assignment, all awaiting the opening of a new housing development – an Orange Park, a Sunny Isles, or a more pretentious Royal Palm Estates. The young family across the communal scrap of St. Augustine we called a yard consisted of an engineer, his wife, and their blonde, three-year old daughter Susan, who introduced herself as Sue-Tu-un and spent the afternoons swinging on a tire a previous tenant had strung from a hackberry. The Wilsons, Alabama natives, had moved down from Huntsville, their speech a-sway with diphthongs; they were the first real Southerners I had ever met. Their hometown had been the site of the Redstone Arsenal during World War II and was transformed as headquarters for the Army’s missile research program when German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his colleagues were brought over via Operation Paperclip. The Marshall Space Flight Center, where Mr. Wilson had worked, opened in 1960.
Moving into 305 took no more than a day. The place offered mismatched but serviceable furniture; ours would remain in storage until Dad could get us into one of the new neighborhoods. From the U-Haul, we pulled our necessities, and I remember some internal excitement — just like camping! — but mostly, a gloomy foreboding and anxious questions which grew tall, then askew, like the beaten shrubs by the front door. Why did we have to stay in such an ugly place? How would we live in half the space we’d known? Where would I get any privacy?
One morning I woke up in my twin bed, three feet across from my dozing sister, and discovered a flare of blood across the New England crazy quilt we’d brought for a touch of Mom’s heritage. I inspected my knees — had I skinned one, and not noticed? I crept out to the little hallway, found the bathroom free, locked myself in on the toilet, and peered down in the water. So that’s what it was. I’d been waiting, hoping for it, but the booklets Mom had given me two years before (You’re a Young Lady Now; Very Personally Yours) were no preparation for how it looked: red blossoms floating, wavering, like low-tide creatures I’d once gazed upon in Key West. I found the elastic and cotton contraption and pulled it on. But I wouldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t — we were all too close, and too distracted. I would get too much attention, or none at all, and the thought of either extreme – and then, in that transitory state, I was always thinking in extremes – made me want to cry. For four months I stored the used pads in my bottom drawer, rolled up like fat snails, sneaking them out to the garbage in a grocery sack when no one was home.
One afternoon, Mom quietly took me aside. Perhaps she had been putting clothes away in my dresser, sniffed the sour musk of those pads. “Sweetie, I don’t believe I told you how to dispose of used ones,” she said. “Let me show you.” And she did, and to my relief, we didn’t speak of it again.