The era of the 1960s started with the torch being passed to a youthful and hopeful generation of Americans. The decade would start with the lofty aspirations of landing a man on the moon’s surface and safely returning them to the earth, and thus the birth of the Apollo space mission.
The ensuing years would unfold with upheaval and unforeseen tragedies. The assassinations of our president, a hero of the civil rights movement, and an aspiring presidential candidate, all cut down pursuing freedom and equality.
That year, 1968, seemed to be the culmination of brewing unrest across the country. My family was also experiencing its own fragmentation; our home just outside of sleepy Bridgehampton was in turmoil. I was one of four children; we all were still attending grade school. My mother, desperate to hold the family unit together, decided to rent our modest Hampton house and set out for a trial relocation to south Florida.
The day arrived for us to make our way down Brick Kiln Road for maybe the last time. It was gray that October morning; my mother loaded our car, packing it with necessities for the move. She then returned to lock the front door. Trying to hold back tears she clenched the keys into her palm. As she pulled out of the driveway snowflakes began falling. Gusts of wind along with the flurries bore an ominous sign of days ahead.
It was also during that month of October, 1968, that I became aware of the Apollo space mission. For the next few months my family lived on a small island near Cocoa Beach. Once there we settled in a new subdivision on Merritt Island. This was an especially interesting location, being just across the Banana River from Cape Kennedy.
That year was the peak of the Apollo space program, which was the epicenter for engineering a manned flight to the moon. So many afternoons my younger brother and I fished the river and watched in anticipation, as the test flights for a moon landing were happening in our backyard. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac and our house was on the water, giving us an unobstructed view of the Kennedy Space Center launch site. Our neighbors also gathered: mostly fathers with their sons, and a few of the girls also watched with some interest.
I was just 10 and my brother eight as we watched with delight, listening to the countdown on a neighbor’s transistor radio. We counted down along with the others in the crowd. The ground rumbled under our feet; wakes of water moved rapidly along the river. Then there was a roar of the engines, and a blast of flames flashed over the watery horizon. Our eyes traced the flash toward the sky; the space ship rose directly over our heads just like a rocket. We were witnessing a piece of history in the making. My brother and I jumped in the air, filled with boyish delight at the spectacle.
Then, as I turned to the crowd, I felt a sense of loss and a bit of shame. Looking around, I saw that all the other children were sharing this moment of history with their dads, being held up to the sky and tutored on the science behind the rocket launching.
These were the test flights for the space mission to land the first man on the moon, but for my brother and me there was no dad to share the wonder of space flight. A man landing on the moon: the notion of this was an inbred boys’ fantasy, from comic book stories to the dreams of our victorious heroes. But for us our father was unavailable, unconscious for any practical definition of fatherhood. He was always out with his buddies at the bar, or already ossified, passed out somewhere. We stood, mouths open, watching these tests of human determination and ingenuity triumphing over the elements and challenges of space exploration.
There would be no male figure by our sides; we were always out of place as fatherless sons, again and again.
Somehow my brother and I got along, shamed at times, lost and alone. We would never have those father-and-son memories, not even for a few moments.
The divorce was easily predictable to others and was finalized within the coming months. After that, I didn’t have to give any excuses to anyone why my father was absent from occasions; he was now just gone.
The months passed quickly. Things didn’t work out in Florida so Mother took her brood back to our home in the Hampton hamlet. I guess to keep things somewhat normal, questions about the divorce were never directly addressed.
The bustling summer season in full swing was also a distraction for our family. The Fourth of July was always exciting for children. Next it was a buzz of anticipation everywhere as the launch of Apollo 11, “D-Day” for the moon mission, was rapidly approaching. Our family, like others, had our black-and-white televisions on and we waited for the countdown to begin. On this typically steamy afternoon of July 20th, history was being made; for the first time a man would land on the moon. A billion people were watching this happen thousands of miles above the earth. There in the sky beyond our atmosphere, in the darkness of outer space a man, a human in a space suit, would walk on the surface of the moon.
I grew up, as all young boys, looking up into the night sky and dreaming about the mysterious mound in the sky. It was constantly morphing, sometimes even disappearing or changing color, almost making it a magic place. I remember thinking about the harvest moon; it seemed to me an eerie conversion, yellowish, almost sickly in nature. I mused wildly with questions about the moon; could it somehow be alive? Thoughts of danger raced within my young imagination.
I think that all boys were curious and held a respectful fear of the mysteriously changing mass above. I wished I had a dad to talk to. I did get scared sometimes, especially after watching a horror movie with a werewolf howling at the moon before stalking a night’s prey.
Once again, I watched history in the making. On this day the entire civilized world would be watching the planting of the American flag on the moon, and hearing that famous quote noted around the globe: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Thank you, Neil Armstrong.)
Ironically, almost a decade later, on another steamy still night in July, the chapter for this father and son would come to a close. It ended by his hand, and now there’s no turning back.
Ryan Matthews, a retired mortgage banker, lives in Bridgehampton.