ANNIVERSARIES I MISSED (Segue of the Day: 7/22/19)

A lot of people noted the juxtaposition of Chappaquiddick and the Apollo 11 moon landing this past weekend but I didn’t come across anyone who quite got the full significance of the deep cultural connection (or, some might say, disconnection) between two events that, had they not occurred within 24 hours of each other, would never be linked by the Cosmos, let alone the blog-o-verse.

But linked they are.

They meant little to me at the time. The moon landing was an anticlimax. I was there for the liftoff and everyone in my neighborhood knew the time to worry was between the testing process (the space where Gus Grissom and his crew had died in the chillingly recent past) and breaking the atmosphere (the space where Dick Scobee and his Challenger crew would die in the not-too-distant future). It wasn’t until Apollo 13 that anybody had a clue space itself might not be a cakewalk and this was soon forgotten, to be remembered when they made a movie about it years later, after which it was soon forgotten again.

As for the other, I never really heard much about Ted Kennedy abandoning Mary Jo Kopechne to death by suffocation and drowning while saving himself until he ran for President in the 1980 primary season and my Florida Panhandle barber, a yellow dog Democrat not exactly enamored of Jimmy Carter, announced he wasn’t going to vote for somebody who “couldn’t even get a whore across a bridge.”

It was a long time after that before I found out Mary Jo Kopechne was a campaign worker, not a party girl, not that it mattered to me. That she was left to die–and the man who left her at best a craven coward, at worst a monster of moral indifference–always seemed the important part.

It was even longer before a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, a stone’s throw from my earlier Space Coast childhood home, made me realize what my friends’ dads had pulled off. They coached Little League, came to the churches their wives took the kids to every Sunday on Easter and Christmas, never missed a day’s work, asked us if we wanted to look like girls the second our hair or fingernails got too long, and probably hated Ted Kennedy a lot worse than my Panhandle barber did, not to mention more than they loved the Kennedy brother who gave them their mission in the first place.

And if they didn’t yet hate ol’ Ted, they certainly hated his kind. Some primal part of their being knew his swamp-dwelling breed existed to drain the American Experiment of the meaning they had invested it with; of all meaning, in fact, except the example it will provide to whatever desolate future the epic failure his kind imposed across the ensuing half-century has now guaranteed.

The only thing they have left is the one thing even the hero of Chappaquiddick, working overtime for decades to crush their old, ever-aspiring America like a beetle, could never take away from them.

They put a man on the moon.

JUST THE McGEE (Monthly Book Report: October, 2015)

…and, for last month, nothing but the McGee:

A Tan and Sandy Silence (John D. MacDonald, 1971)

ATANANDSANDYSILENCE

 

By now, the various working parts of the series were well-oiled bits of machinery: McGee the social critic; McGee the adventurer; McGee the Lothario-with-a-conscience. Commerce aside (as it never quite can be in popular pulp) the series is best when the second element is preeminent, there’s a healthy dose of the first, and the third is kept in check. Throughout the late sixties, MacDonald had real trouble holding the right balance, as if he couldn’t quite let go of wanting the series to be something more than high-end entertainment. (Oddly enough, he found what he was looking for when he got back to basics-with-a-twist–see the last entry below.)

Beginning with the previous book and continuing here, he found himself mostly back on stride. There’s still a little flab. But it picks up speed as it goes along and, by the time everything is coming to a head, McGee can toss off maxims like, “Tourists are invisible, except to the man trying to sell them something,” without slowing down, even while a girl is buried up to her neck on a hidden beach and the tide is rolling in.

A fourth element–McGee being gnawed by new doubts as he ages (doubts that both lead into and emanate from a scene where he is watching that tide while trussed and bound)–also makes its presence felt more strongly than before, though not so it distracts too much. All in all a strong entry, nearly on a par with the early years.

The Scarlet Ruse (John D. MacDonald, 1973)

jmacSCARLETR-- USE

Better still and continuing the momentum. Here the basic adventure and the usual elements are underpinned by the threat of McGee and his little houseboat community losing their slips at Bahia Mar due to a local ordinance. It all works out in the end, but the subplot adds an extra layer of melancholy to a story that is bound to have some extra resonance for those of us who grew up in the Florida MacDonald knew so well.

The plot is strong–a stamp collection pilfered from the bank vault of a mobster who doesn’t yet know it’s missing, unless by chance he stole it himself–and McGee finds himself pitted against not one but two formidable villains who are also pitted against each other. There’s real danger and, in the end, and real damage to the hero both physically and psychically.

But having grown up across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center at the Space Age’s highest tide, my own favorite passage, which distills why these books are always going to be worth reading, was this one:

So I told her about the radio tape years ago, made in Lauderdale, and broadcast only once before NASA came galloping in, all sweaty, and confiscated it. The interviewer had asked one of those good and tough-minded and free-thinking men of the early days of space orbiting how he felt as the rocket was taking off. Maybe it was because he had heard the question too many times. He answered it with a question. “How would you feel, taking off, sitting up there on top of fifty thousand parts, knowing that every one of them had been let to the lowest bidder?”

“Grissom?” she asked. I nodded.

(For those who weren’t there or don’t recall, Gus Grissom was one of those who burned to death on top of a pile of those lowest-bidder parts. Future historians, pondering American decline, could do worse than focus on that moment as a tipping point. Those presently inclined to blame it all on the hippies could do worse than to focus on it in the here and now, when it might just possibly still not be too late to change course.)

The Turquoise Lament (John D. MacDonald, 1973)

JMACTLAMENT

And coming off three straight strong entries, MacDonald raises his game to its highest pitch, with the best book in the series to date and a novel that could stand on its own even if you entered knowing nothing whatsoever of Travis McGee, his friend Meyer, the Busted Flush, or the State of America, circa 1973, though all of those elements are turned to good advantage here.

The basic story floats free of the series in some respects, but also culminates MacDonald/McGee’s trending pessimism and creeping self-doubt. McGee, already at full-blown mid-life crisis, answers a call from a much younger woman who once had a serious school-girl crush on him. She’s either going crazy or her husband wants to kill her. She wants him to find out which.

Not normally in the McGee’s line of business, but her late father once saved his life so he takes it on as repayment of the debt.

And, perhaps because he’s started out too close to the situation, he proceeds to get exactly everything wrong, with consequences that lead step-by-stop to both a crisis of faith and a deftly intertwined, hair-raising climax that pits McGee against one of his most terrifying and amoral villains.

The elements that sometimes make the books drag a bit are kept to a minimum and the sex-therapy is replaced by a genuine love story punctuated with the kind of sour-sex, hardcore, nail-anything-that-moves release you would expect from a McGee type in the real world, absent the need to set sexually liberated hearts aflutter (and I don’t just mean the women).

He survives it all in the end. Even the love story. And I look forward to the final decade of the series knowing this basically means he can survive anything–even being the protagonist of a novel the Bellow/Updike types would have killed to have their names on , if they’d only had the contacts.

And I can’t close this without quoting my favorite zinger of the series so far:

The medical industry is never ready for inquiry. They never used to like to answer questions. Now they have the excuse they could be sued. They overwork the excuse.

Doctors and lawyers, lined up perfectly to fit my life experience.

I’ll be real surprised if it gets any better than that.

DOUBLE VISION (NEIL ARMSTRONG and SCOTT McKENZIE, R.I.P.)

The Byrds “Amazing Grace/Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins” (video)

First, a memory:

To tell you the truth I wasn’t overly impressed.

I was eight years old and, except for the sheer number of people lining the banks of the Indian River, Apollo 11 looked like any other space launch. God knows I had seen enough of them to be jaded by then. If you’re eight and you can see something you’ve seen a dozen or more times before just by walking into the front yard, it’s hard to get your mind around any possible reason why people would travel thousands of miles to bear witness this time around.

And, like most of the locals, I was never much into astronauts.

Gus Grissom had been the one everybody really liked and we all knew he would have been the first man on the moon if NASA hadn’t been into cutting corners and burned him alive (along with Roger Chaffee and Ed White) in the training mission for Apollo 1.

As far as the locals were concerned, Neil Armstrong was just a stand-in.

Of course, what locals know is rarely the whole truth and often not the truth at all.

I’m just saying the vibe on the ground–and the fact that my friends’ dads built the things–left me less than awed by the spectacle of another space rocket leaving the launch pad even if, for once, we did actually go down to the river bank ourselves and see the thing off the ground instead of waiting that extra second for it to clear the tree line.

If my own dad (who had nothing to do with the space program beyond being the first official visitor when the Kennedy Space Center opened, huckstering some rather nice Moon Maps to the tourists on major launch days, winning the prize at a local art contest which was subsequently withdrawn when he revealed that the subject was a view of the planet Earth through the space-mask of a dead astronaut and making sure I continued watching launches, from the front yard at least, even after the edge went off the ritual excitement, which had probably happened some time around the occasion of Armstrong’s first trip into space with Gemini 8 when I was five) hadn’t made me stand out by U.S. 1 and write down license plates, I probably would have no distinctive memory of being present for the great occasion at all.

As it was, I tallied (if memory serves–I’m not in a position to look up the record at the moment) forty-eight states, five Canadian provinces and two foreign countries.

I might not even remember that, except I got my name in the paper for it.

* * * *

I suppose along about now is when I should be telling you I eventually outgrew my youthful ignorance and learned to fully appreciate the genius and sacrifice that was required to put a man on the moon, and the personal heroism of Neil Armstrong, who really was everything we want our heroes to be.

All I can say, is…yes and no.

First off, I certainly did learn to be in utter awe of the engineering feats my friends’ dads accomplished between Little League coaching assignments. One trip to the Kennedy Space Center as an adult took care of that.

And I certainly don’t have any trouble admiring Neil Armstrong’s courage and discipline, which he had in quantities no society can ever have too much of. Not to mention his genuine modesty–his willingness to be Bradley (and not even the real Bradley, who was apparently pretty vain, but the modest Bradley of legend) to Chuck Yeager’s Patton and John Glenn’s Eisenhower.

From this distance, though, I have to say the whole thing looks basically like one of the government’s cooler jobs programs but not necessarily one of its more useful ones.

I know we are supposed to have gotten benefits from space exploration that would not have been otherwise available (though I don’t have the scientific expertise to judge just how much of a role actual space travel played in these breakthroughs and am not inclined to take anyone’s word for it given how likely any government’s really cool jobs programs are to be intertwined with said government’s propaganda interests).

And–speaking from an age when professional football has become the national sport and we have ungodly trouble even so much as cooking a decent cheeseburger (two facts I do not consider unrelated)–I can hardly scoff at a time when we could put a man on the moon.

Still, I have to say that the mission which made Armstrong immortal basically represented a vision of mankind–and specifically mankind’s American division–that never took hold of me.

* * * *

Philip Blondheim, who was born nine years after Armstrong and passed away a week earlier, represented, albeit nowhere near as definitively, another vision of “Mankind America” that never took hold of me.

As Scott McKenzie, he recorded a catchy number called “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” which reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1967 (roughly equidistant between Armstrong’s space missions).

I have no idea if McKenzie’s song was ever embraced by any real hippies, but the speed and efficiency with which the song’s composer, John Phillips (the chief songwriter in the Mamas and the Papas and an old bandmate of McKenzie’s from fifties’ doo-wop days and the early sixties commercial folk boom–they were men committed to the pursuit of fame)–by then as definitively “El Lay” as anyone could be–cranked out a chart-scaling ode to the epicenter of the Summer of Love, was something my friends’ crewcut, Bud-drinking dads could have readily identified with.

That’s gettin’ in there and gettin’ it done!

Somewhere in there, not because of any harm intended by Scott McKenzie, who seems to have been a genuinely nice and rather self-deprecating man, but perhaps because of something he was willing to represent if there was sufficient cash lying about, death-dealing drugs attached themselves to those life-affirming notions which had broken loose on the world in the previous decade.

Namely sex and rock n’ roll.

So the Summer of Love–with its inherent contempt for rules–was as big a reality-dodge as the Space Race with its inherent reverence for rules. In that respect, they ended up being two sides of the same coin–two brands of hucksterism that were always separated far more by degree than kind, no matter how much their respective adherents got along like cats and dogs.

So I’m glad Neil Armstrong and Scott McKenzie were nice men with competing visions who lived to reasonably old age and, for what it’s worth, I think they led lives about as worthy as we could have expected.

Part of me, though, remembers the America that could make a cheeseburger and that still knew baseball was the worthiest game.

And that part of me wishes we had expected a little more.