Posts Tagged ‘Key West’

Telstar Credit: NASA

I’ve clipped the following paragraph from today’s Writers Almanac, June 10, 2012:
“The world’s first commercial communications satellite was launched 50 years ago today, in 1962. It was called Telstar 1. AT&T owned it, but it was part of a multinational project to experiment with satellite communication across the Atlantic Ocean. The satellite itself was about three feet in diameter, with an array of square solar panels over its surface. NASA launched Telstar from Cape Canaveral, aboard a Delta rocket.”

I don’t remember the launch of Telstar, but before long everyone knew about it. All across America, people stood in their backyards waiting to see the first manmade wandering star cross the sky. I was a young boy just entering junior high school and in love with the idea of space. I dragged my small telescope out to the yard and set it up in the clear south Florida nights. In other yards I could see families standing together with their binoculars or just pointing up toward the sky.

A song called Telstar, an instrumental tune I can still hear in my head, was popular on the AM stations we could get on our transistor radio. Our eyes and ears were turned to outer space, in both wonder and in dread. We all knew that if the Soviets launched their ICBMs, they would make a long arc to the edge of space before falling out of the sky. Yet, we were preparing to launch the first human beings into the edge of the universe.

When I listened to Telstar on my sister’s tinny radio, I felt the ache of longing for the mysterious wonder of the stars and planets, for the Moon and Mars. Like John Carter, I could have willed my body to be transported to the alien Martian landscape. Even then I knew that was a fantasy. Mars is as dead as the Moon, and besides, what better place to be a boy than the island of Key West – 12 months of summer to fish and swim and sail, play ball and bike through the narrow streets, watch movies in the downtown theaters on Saturday afternoons, check out an armful of science fiction books at the library to swallow in huge, heady gulps?

We were straddling an ever widening crevasse, one foot in the time of hand cranked ice cream and fire fly evenings, the other in color television and the first lumbering computers and handheld calculators, courtesy of IBM and Texas Instruments.

Telstar told us the future was coming fast. It was a buzzing in our ears, an artificial light crossing the sky. It was soon the background of our lives, half forgotten, but suddenly there at the corner of our eye. Wow, a manmade star. Who could forget that?

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There was always a breeze blowing in off the sea and even the hottest days were bearable in the summers of my early teens there in the town of Key West on the Straits of Florida between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico out where the Gulf Stream begins.

In the cool mornings the rain came for twenty minutes and washed the streets clean.  Down at the docks along Roosevelt Boulevard the houseboats bobbed in the brackish water and boys in cutoff jeans threw themselves off the ends of the piers. I lived a mile away on a man-made island connected by a causeway to the big island of Key West. All around us was water and the tall white cumulus clouds passing overhead like sailing ships going out to sea. The water of our island was clearer than by the piers and you could see down among the rocks where the Florida lobsters hid. I could see their wiry black antennae through twelve feet of clear green water and my friends and I could swim down to them and catch them with our hands.

Most of the summer was spent out of doors, in the water or the ball field or bicycling around the town. There were a few small shops and a barbershop on our island, which was owned by the navy and had many blocks of new, neat concrete duplexes painted shades of beige and laid out in small circles along straight roads.  It was like any suburb and all of the fathers came out and watered their lawns in the evening and trimmed the grass on Saturday afternoon.  It was also like a company town where all the fathers went to work on one of the big naval bases. But the true town was only ten minutes away by bicycle.

Saturday mornings I rode my bike into the town to a neighborhood near the high school to hang out with my friend Carl.  These were streets of older houses, covered in shade and half hidden by thick tropical bushes. It was cool in the mornings here. Carl was a one- sport athlete, a long distance runner.  At thirteen, he was in serious training for the Olympics, skinny and red haired and dedicated. During the week, summer or winter, it was five miles a day.  But on Saturdays, it was twenty miles, and I would ride along beside him until I grew too bored and pedaled home.

Summer was Navy League baseball on the naval base downtown where my father worked.  By this age most of us had been playing for five or six years and had learned the game. These were real contests with head first slides and wicked fast balls. Our star pitcher was an almost six-foot-tall African-American named Harris, who threw so hard my hand stung in my catcher’s mitt.

The armed services had been integrated for a long time but at the Fifth Street Baptist Church they were still discussing what we would do if black people tried to join our congregation. It was a contentious issue, almost as serious as the earlier worries over electing a Catholic president.  The consensus was no to the Catholic and yes to integration, but no black people asked to join our church and when Kennedy visited Key West after the Cuban Missile Crisis and waved to us from his open car, we were all won over.

Those summers I floated through the days with the high clouds over head and my face below the water with a  snorkel in my mouth and bright fish darting around beyond my mask. Next to me were the shadows of my friends, likewise floating on the surface of our days, the sun casting their outlines deep down into the stream.

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