Remembering Man’s First Lunar Landing

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Like millions around the world, on July 20, 1969, I was glued to the Apollo 11 coverage. We strained to watch American astronauts Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin become the first humans to land on the moon. It was nothing less than moonlight madness on CBS as my sister and I sat transfixed, cross-legged and sleepy-eyed in front of our grainy, black-and-white TV console.

We were all thirsty for every nuance of Walter Cronkite’s televised play-by-play, because it was a collective glorious moment for all Americans. Looking back, it was also strange redemption for the trauma we had endured less than six years before when — with a lump in his throat — Walter (the same trusted newsman) had the most painful task of all. To deliver the unfathomable news to a nation that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. That our president with the lofty goal of landing a man on the moon would never see it realized.

When Christmas 1969 arrived, one of the presents under the tree from my mother and father was this Apollo 11/John F. Kennedy medal commemorating man’s first lunar landing. On the back it reads:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

It may not surprise you to learn that at the time I received this gift, I was an unimpressed twelve year old. But fifty years later, it’s one of the items I treasure most from my parents. Not just for the sake of owning this beautiful and rare piece, designed by renowned sculptor Karen Worth.

But also because having the medal helps me to relive and cherish the memory of a remarkable moment in American history … when we reveled in a positive shared experience and were universally proud of our accomplishments as a nation.

Get Well Soon, Bob Gibson

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Over the weekend, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Bob Gibson is battling pancreatic cancer. The flame-throwing, right-handed, Hall of Fame pitcher–who spent his entire seventeen-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals–is eighty-three years old. He is likely to begin chemotherapy this week. (This photo of the acrobatic and intimidating delivery of the Cardinals’ ace pitcher came from the cover of one of my 1960s scorecards.)

In 2017, as a tribute to the most dominant pitcher of the 1960s, I wrote and published the following story about “Gibby” and an historic, astounding moment my dad and I witnessed. The full piece, titled The Transistor Radio and the Crack of a Bat appears in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book of twenty-six true stories about my Missouri youth.

***

Many of my memories are forever embedded as sounds. Of course, there was “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind”–that profound yet tinny phrase Neil Armstrong uttered on July 20, 1969, when he became the first person to step on the surface of the moon. That sound and a few sketchy images broke through our black-and-white TV.

But two years before Armstrong’s historic moon walk, there was another sound that echoed through my childhood. This one emanated from my portable, pocket-sized transistor radio. It was July 15,1967. Bob Gibson was on the mound pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals that day at Busch Memorial Stadium. He was facing the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dad and I were sitting in the right field bleachers. I had my baseball mitt on my left hand and my transistor radio in its tattered leather case blaring away in my right …

Together Dad and I had the good fortune of watching Gibson pitch at least twenty different times in my childhood. I’ll bet he won seventeen or eighteen of those games. But on this particular hot summer day, all of us in attendance were in store for something stunning, unimaginable, and apparently catastrophic–and the transistor radio would play a big role in a shocking St. Louis moment that is forever sealed in my memory.

Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ legendary right fielder, stepped to the plate to face Gibson. I remember the crack of Clemente’s bat, booming across the field and through my transistor radio. (Harry Caray and Jack Buck–arguably the best baseball broadcast team ever–provided the color commentary on KMOX Radio.) Clemente had smacked a line drive off Gibson’s leg, just above his ankle.

In spite of the warm temperature, the fans went stone-cold silent. The Cardinals’ trainer rushed to the mound to attend to the perennial all-star pitcher. After the trainer applied a freezing agent to the area, Gibby took a few soft tosses from the mound and then waved off the trainer. He was ready to resume pitching. A collective exhale filtered through the crowd and my transistor radio.

But the relief was short lived. After walking Willie Stargell and retiring Bill Mazeroski on a pop up, Gibson swung into his pitching motion and delivered a 3-2 pitch to Donn Clendenon. That’s when he collapsed in a heap on the mound.

A palpable hush blanketed the ballpark. It echoed and hung in the smoky bleacher air as vendors–suspended in slow motion–passed peanuts, beer, and hot dogs into waiting hands. Overriding the silence, the only sounds I can recall were the concerned voices of Buck and Caray cascading through my transistor and those of countless other fans muttering around their squawk boxes throughout the ballpark. After the Cardinals’ medical team removed Gibson from the field on a stretcher, we soon learned he had suffered a compound fracture. Caray and Buck told us through our transistor radios. It was devastating news.

As you would expect, Bob Gibson was sidelined for much of the year, but a young, unproven right-handed pitcher named Nelson Briles took his place in the rotation for the remainder of the regular season. Briles led the National League that year with a .737 win-loss percentage and a 14-5 record. His performance silenced the skeptics, who insisted the Cardinals wouldn’t recover from Gibson’s debilitating mid-season injury.

Remarkably, Gibson returned to the Cardinals in time to face Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. According to the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, “In the end, Gibson was clearly the difference, winning three complete games 2-1, 6-0, and 7-2 while striking out twenty-six and walking only five.” That included the deciding game 7.

Though Dad and I weren’t in the crowd to see any of the 1967 World Series games in St. Louis, we were there to hear the crack of Clemente’s bat reverberate throughout Busch Memorial Stadium. We witnessed an unlikely moment shared by two of major league baseball’s future Hall of Famers.

Ironically, four years later on August 14, 1971, Bob Gibson was on the mound against the Pirates again. This time the tables were turned. On this night, pitching at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Gibson achieved something that had escaped him previously. He recorded the only no-hitter of his illustrious career. I wasn’t in Pittsburgh that night to witness Gibson’s historic moment in person, but I listened intently from my bedroom in south suburban St. Louis. Propped up on my elbow, I heard exuberant Jack Buck exclaim, “Gibson’s thrown a no-hitter!” Best of all, I heard the man do it. I heard every pitch on my trusty transistor radio.

***

Ironic postscript: this evening–exactly fifty-two years since the Gibson-Clemente moment–the Cardinals and Pirates will renew their long-standing rivalry. It will the first of a three-game series at Busch Stadium (the Cardinals’ current home, which opened in downtown St. Louis in 2006).

In the off chance that Gibby reads this, there’s only one more thing to say. Get well soon, Bob Gibson. Just as I did in 1967, I’m rooting for your speedy recovery.

 

 

 

The Voice Inside

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Water is a precious commodity. Especially on days like this in the Sonoran Desert. It’s 111 degrees outside. Perfect for a little heat-related sci fi.

***

Your throat is parched. All of your water jugs are empty. But all is not lost. You’re less than five minutes away from a water station in a strip mall.

You step in your car and prepare to drive there. You grip the wheel. It feels as if it’s been baking in an oven. But you persevere and crank up the AC.

Five minutes later, you’ve arrived. You exit your sedan with two empty gallon jugs. One in each hand. A magnificent blue oasis is looming on the near horizon. It’s calling your name. It’s glowing and quivering like a mirage in a dusty old western.

You walk to the water station entrance. You fumble in your pocket for twenty-five cents. Still in a stupor from the pulsating heat, you slide two dimes and a nickel into the slot to fill the first jug. The water begins to bubble out of the machine into your first container. A gasping-and-grateful female voice startles you. It calls out from inside the machine. It utters two words … “Thank You.”

You don’t believe your ears. You tighten the blue cap on the first jug and place the second empty one where it had been. You slide two more dimes and another nickel into the same slot in the Glacier water machine. Again, the voice inside repeats her weary declaration … “Thank You.” 

You wonder.

“Have I entered the Twilight Zone?”

“Is this a new Stephen King novel about an automated creature dying of thirst, who can only survive and get more water when patrons visit her and deposit their coins?”

“Or perhaps the frail voice inside is simply thanking me for bottling my own water and reusing my plastic containers.”

You decide.

 

 

A Better Day, a Better View, a Better Path

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We all experience ghastly days that shake us to the core. Days when our inner monologue runs on a defiant loop: “Oh, if I can just get through this … if I can just beat the odds … maybe one day the light will return.”

At least, that’s how it felt for me on July 6, 2017 … my sixtieth birthday … when I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis on the way west from our old home in Illinois to our new home in Arizona.

With a little luck and a lot of perseverance, two years have passed. Last Saturday–on July 6, 2019–my husband and I traveled two hours north from sizzling Scottsdale into Sedona’s red rock country for a hike to celebrate our shared sixty-second birthday (yes … it’s sweet, surreal and serendipitous) and (serendipity squared) the second anniversary of me (actually, us) surviving heart trauma.

Given the multi-layered significance of July 6 in our lives, it was only fitting that we chart a new course for the day in this geological wonderland. So, we packed plenty of water, slathered on the sunscreen, and stepped out on the trail toward one of Sedona’s gems: Bell Rock.

On the course of our hour-long journey, we stopped frequently to marvel at the spectacular scenery in our new home state … to acknowledge just how far we’d come in twenty-four months. From a familiar-and-comfortable suburban-Chicago life … to a frightening hospital stay in the city where I was born … to our 112-degree arrival in Arizona when our air conditioning faltered … to a well-earned, grateful life of wide open spaces, majestic sunsets and creative possibilities that have since bloomed.

At one point on our final approach to Bell Rock, I snapped this photo to capture the flight and magnitude of the moment. Just like this young mountain biker who wheeled past us, we’ve rounded the corner and transcended the story of An Unobstructed View. We’ve begun a new chapter in our journey here in the Grand Canyon State. We’ve welcomed the passage of time. We’ve found the gift of reflection in Arizona’s rejuvenating red rocks.

 

 

 

The Boxer and the Theatre of the Mind

Normally, I feature a photo to illustrate the gist of my story. But, for reasons you’ll soon discover, I’m going to ask you to maximize your imagination, explore the theatre of the mind, and form your own visual conclusions.

***

Another warm Wednesday. Another morning at the gym. Another forty-five minute cardio workout–a climb on the treadmill, a circuit of light weights, and a ringside seat on a stationary bike.

I say ringside, because at Club SAR in Scottsdale the bikes are all clustered around a boxing ring in the center of the gym … with a few punching bags positioned on the floor just outside the ring.

Today, there was nothing happening in the ring, but something remarkable outside it captured my attention. Something heart-warming and inspiring too. Two gray-haired gentlemen–one likely in his sixties, the other in his eighties–entered the space. Conceivably, the younger man may have been a coach, a son, a younger brother, a partner to the older man. I’ll never know. I simply observed him helping his older cohort slip on a pair of boxing gloves.

He carefully guided the frail older man and positioned him in front of one of the punching bags. That’s when the older man–wearing an American-flag T-shirt, shin-length compression socks and black athletic shoes–proceeded to pound at the bag for the next minute or so. After he was through, he rested against the side of the ring for a minute or two. Then, his friend guided him back for round two.

Maybe you’ve already figured out the punch line (pun intended). The old, patriotic boxer is blind. I don’t know what he remembers seeing earlier in his life … or for that matter if he’s ever seen at all. But what I saw today–on the day before Independence Day in Scottsdale, Arizona–was love, strength, courage and tenacity. And I was grateful to have witnessed all of it.

As you were reading this story, what did you see?

 

 

 

July in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

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It was about 90 degrees at 7 o’clock when I grabbed my broad-brimmed hat, a tall bottle of water, and a cool, damp towel to cover the back of my neck. My husband and I were heading to Vista del Camino Park for our early morning walk before the temperatures escalated past 100. Such is life in July in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

The elephant foot succulents on the north side of our condo don’t seem to mind. They are coping just fine. Under the eaves. Resting in the shade most of the day. We decided to move our container of gladiolas next to them. They were getting torched on the south side in the all-day sun. Maybe the American flags will help boost their spirits as Independence Day approaches.

I’ve learned to accept and adapt to July’s torrid temperatures here … since that day nearly two years ago when I survived to tell the story of An Unobstructed View. As long as you keep a ready supply of water nearby and stay indoors during the spike in the afternoon heat, it’s manageable.

This year we’ve planned a few strategic July escapes, as well.  One to the stunning red rocks of Sedona a few hours north. Another further up Interstate 17 into the fragrant, tall pines and mountains of Flagstaff, where the air is thinner and the temperatures are twenty-five degrees cooler.

Truly, life in Arizona is a story of extremes … and remarkable beauty.

 

A Trip Beyond a Sliver of the Moon

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A look skyward this morning carried me back. In an instant, I jettisoned one freshly trimmed Scottsdale palm and a barely-detectable sliver of the moon for an unscheduled trip to my 1969 St. Louis summer crew cut and pubescent, eleven-year-old body.

When I landed in a black-and-white TV world, it was three weeks before two men walked on the moon. To gather my wits, I twirled the knobs of my transistor radio. Past the dollar bleacher seats of my Cardinals’ baseball childhood. I searched frantically up and down the dial for an empty channel in the frequency.  For coverage of Dorothy’s fond farewell before she clicked her heels. For a flashpoint on Christopher Street that took us from Stonewall to somewhere over the rainbow. But it wasn’t meant to be. I left without finding them there.

Now, fifty years have passed. I’m nearly sixty two. I’m living in the Sonoran heat with a fresh summer haircut. I lead a full and open life with my husband. Together we share all the scars and joys of being gay. Every omission. Every discovery. Every hurt. Every realization. Every victory. Every monsoon. Every full moon. It’s as it should be. They are all a part of our journey.