Earth Below Us, Drifting, Falling, Floating Weightless, Calling, Calling Home

We lived at Patrick Air Force base for a year and a half, in the second unit of a flat-roofed fourplex directly across the street from the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately that street was highway A1A, famous worldwide as a center of beach culture in the United States, a scenic coastal route through Atlantic coastal cities and beach towns that have been Spring break and tourist destinations for decades. SR A1A passes to the west of Cape Canaveral and the John F Kennedy Space Center.  It’s a very VERY busy road and I’d hear the screech of brakes and honking horns every day. We couldn’t just load the baby in the stroller and cross the street to the beach; we actually had to get in a car and drive there.  Still, it was nice-you could hear and smell the ocean. There was housing on the beach side of A1A too, so you couldn’t see the beach. 

I stayed out of the front yard because the hedges in front of our unit were very short compared to the hedges on either side and I was afraid that meant a vehicle had crashed through them some time not too long ago. The neighbors that shared our north wall were the same age as us with a daughter just 1 month younger than Nick. When Rocky and his parents insisted that Nick had to be christened, I asked ChrisAnne and her husband to be Nick’s godparents. When I finally decided I couldn’t take it any more and got a job outside the home, ChrisAnne babysat Nick.

ChrisAnne got me hooked on two Soap Operas: “One Life to Live,” with the delightful troublemaker Tina Lord Roberts, and “Knot’s Landing,” with the long-suffering Poor Valene Ewing. “Knot’s Landing” was a popular nighttime soap, a spinoff of the insanely popular “Dallas.” “Knot’s Landing ran from 1979-1993, but a local TV station aired episodes of previous seasons every day after “One Life to Live.” I used to have a series of Knot’s Landing novels, too. Because I am that book nerd. ChrisAnne and I would take turns bringing the babies to one house or the other, give them lunch, and put them down for naps. Then we’d eat chips and drink coke and gossip while we watched our shows. We even had professional portraits taken of Nick and Savannah together. I’m terribly sorry that I lost track of ChrisAnne; she was a wonderful, fun friend.

Looking back I feel that Rocky started displaying his paranoia while we lived at Patrick. He didn’t want me to run the central Air Conditioning because he was worried about it damaging Nick’s lungs. He could never explain to me how or why the AC would damage the baby’s lungs so I ran it anyway, just making sure to turn it off about 15 minutes before Rocky was due home.

I know some people who maintain that children need to be spanked to learn to behave. Having been spanked as a child and having lived in an emotionally and psychologically abusive marriage, I think I can safely say that fear of punishment does NOT deter behavior. Instead, I became a very good liar. I could lie believably and I could come up with lies on the spot. I started lying a lot at Patrick. I just wanted to be left alone but Rocky became convinced that I was up to something. I spent too much time with ChrisAnne. I left too early or came home too late from work. If I had any male friends I was obviously sleeping with them or at least wanting to. That was especially creepy given I was a night manager at McDonald’s and my crew was mostly teen boys. 

I tried to stop replying with what Rocky called my “smart-ass answers” to him. Before he left for work, Rocky would remind me not to let Nick play in the front yard. I did NOT tell him I had plans to picnic on the highway side of the hedges or set up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk there. I deeply resented Rocky stating the obvious to me as if I was some air-headed idiot. But telling him he was being patronizing led to fights. One night we got into an argument at dinner and he threw his plate across the table toward me. It missed me, and missed Nick sitting beside me in his high chair, and shattered against the front door. Rocky then got pissed because Corelle Ware isn’t supposed to break. I opened my mouth to tell him the Titanic wasn’t supposed to sink, but snapped my teeth shut before the words could escape and went to clean up the mess.

Rocky insisted on giving Nick a tiny glass of champagne of his own at New Years despite my asking him not to. After that I decided that it was easier on everyone if I didn’t try to assert myself. Go along to get along and try to figure out what to do about the situation I’d put myself in. A month or so after Nick’s first birthday I realized I was pregnant again. I told Rocky I wanted to go see my family and he didn’t question me for once, overjoyed at the news of the coming baby. 

I had been telling Rocky for weeks that something was wrong with the clutch in the car. Like, it wasn’t engaging correctly or it was slipping or something–I’m not a mechanic. He told me you have to push the clutch all the way to the floor or it couldn’t engage, and if I kept shifting without engaging the clutch I’d strip the gears. I told him I WAS pushing the clutch all the way down, but it wasn’t working right. He said obviously I wasn’t, or it wouldn’t be acting up. I knew by this time that I was wrong and he was right and just hoped whatever was happening wouldn’t cause the car to explode while I had Nick in it. 

Known explosion triggers

On the way home from dropping Nick and me at the airport to go visit my family in Minot, the clutch cable snapped, rendering the car undrivable and leaving Rocky stranded until he could get a tow. When he called to tell me, I once again snapped my teeth shut on my “I told you so”. But since I was safely two thousand miles away, I did do a silent “I told you so” dance.

Things back home in Minot were tense. Tonia had graduated high school and was ready to be a fulltime mom to AJ. But Joyce wouldn’t go back to work. Tonia and AJ were still living at home and Joyce tried to instill a curfew for Tonia, now 18 as well as being a mother. That didn’t go over well. Joyce interfered with anything Tonia tried to do with or for the baby. Tonia diapered wrong and fed AJ the wrong things and dressed the baby in the wrong clothes for the season, or so Joyce said.

Tonia confided in me that Joyce wouldn’t act like a grandmother; she insisted on acting as the mother and wouldn’t butt out. At one point there was a screaming match and Tonia took her baby and went to a friend’s house. I had a brief fear that there would be a physical tug-of-war over AJ before Tonia got out of the house. Tonia confided in me that she thought she was going to lose her mind if Joyce didn’t stop. She said she found herself telling Joyce, “You are NOT AJ’s mother” at least once a day. I agreed Joyce was being really weird and told Tonia how she’d claimed Nick was hers at Keesler. 

I asked why Tonia didn’t move out and she said she couldn’t afford to. I told her there were programs for single mothers and she should look into them. I told her where to go to start asking questions. Tonia and I started our journey back to one another, united against Joyce. But then it was time for me to go home.

Back in Florida, with the clutch cable repaired, I took Nick and one of my friends out to Kennedy Space Center to take the tour because I loved space and still had dreams of serving on the Enterprise when she was finally built. On the way back home I thought the car sounded weird. I asked my friend if she thought the car sounded weird and she said no. But this was the car Melissa taught me to drive by teaching me to listen to it. I drove another mile or two and then decided to pull over; the car DID sound weird. I pulled to the side of the highway, next to one of the thousands of orange groves in Florida. As soon as the car came to a stop, I heard a ‘thunk’ from underneath it.

I got out and looked under the car. There was a big pipe-looking thing laying on the ground. This turned out to be the drive shaft. The car’s drive shaft was laying on the ground under the car. This could NOT be a good thing. I asked my friend to stay with Nick and walked back down the road about half-a mile, to the orange grove booth where they were selling freshly squeezed orange juice. I asked if I could use their phone and I asked for the name of their grove. I called Rocky at work.

Rocky was at lunch so I left a message with a coworker: “The car broke down and we need help. We are about one half mile south of Whatever Orange Grove on Highway One.” Rocky showed up about an hour later, furious. How could I be so stupid as to leave a message that the car broke down by an orange grove? Did I know how many orange groves there are in Florida? As a matter of fact, I DID know how many orange groves there are in Florida and that’s why I specifically told his idiot coworker I was half a mile south of Whatever Orange Grove on Highway One. Apparently, it was still my fault for not making sure his coworker actually wrote down what I said.

As my pregnancy began to show, Rocky got weirder and meaner. He told me I looked like a beach ball in my maternity clothes. When I switched to drawstring pants because they were more comfortable, he told me they made my butt look saggy. I caught him spying on my phone calls, either by standing out of sight in the next room, or by quietly picking up the second line. I started only using the phone when he was at work and then I started getting paranoid. I started hearing clicks and buzzing when I was on the phone. Rocky had just retrained into communications and I wondered if that training included phone tapping. I stopped using the phone. Paranoia is catching.

When I was about 8 months pregnant I managed to get caught in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic in my little shoebox car in Melbourne. I had Nick in his car seat in the back, cranky because we should’ve already been home. I don’t know what was going on up ahead but all the lanes were full and we were creeping along. At last the jam opened up and everyone began picking up speed. Several cars ahead of me, I saw brake lights flash and so I hit my brakes. The car behind me didn’t hit his brakes and rear ended me.  It wasn’t a high-speed crash; I’d barely been jolted. 

Melbourne Causeway–avoid during rush hour.

I pulled off the road and the teenage boy who’d hit me pulled off behind me. He jumped out of the car to talk to me as I struggled my belly out from behind the steering wheel and turned around to check on Nick. When the kid saw my 8-months pregnant belly, he turned white and started apologizing and trying to make sure I was ok. When I pulled 16-month-old Nick out of the car I thought the poor guy was going to faint. I assured him we were all fine.

While we were exchanging information, a rubbernecker caused a 3-car collision right beside us. I was very relieved when the police finally arrived.

Rocky received orders to PCS to Pruem Air Station in Germany. We were scheduled to leave when the coming baby was one month old. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. But what was I going to do with 2 babies and no education? I really didn’t feel there was a choice. But I knew I would miss living at Patrick. Not only would I be leaving ChrisAnne, but I’d had a front row seat to the Space shuttle launches.

Patrick Air Force Base was renamed Patrick Space Force Base In December 2019. It controls and operates Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Part of its mission has been to provide support for NASA’s crewed spaceflight missions including search and rescue for Space Shuttle launches from Kennedy Space Center. During the time we lived at Patrick, there were five Space Shuttle launches. Rocky’s squadron was backup communications for NASA in case of a catastrophic disaster. The airmen took turns; some of them working up at the launchpad, while others stayed on the base. 

Nick and I really couldn’t go with Rocky when he was working at the launchpad–he was working, after all. And there was nothing to see from the offices on base. So I would pull up a lawn chair on our front porch and watch from there. I loved watching the launches. I wanted to be the first housewife in space. The first teacher in space was scheduled; why couldn’t I be next?

Watching a night launch from my porch was hauntingly beautiful. I was about 30 miles away, so I couldn’t see the shuttle sitting on the pad, but as soon as she was skyborne, you could see the glow of the rockets and the exhaust behind it, lit up by the flames. You could watch these lights head for the stars. During a day launch, the details were easier to see, maybe not as romantic, but beautiful in its own way. But more than what you could see, my favorite part was what you could hear and feel. 

The sound was a deep, deep rumble, so deep it was felt more than heard, so strong it could be felt thirty miles away. It gave me such a rush and I would feel such longing as I watched the shuttle climb away from us until I couldn’t see or hear or feel it any more. 

When Nick was about nine months old, I was feeding him lunch when I heard/felt the rumble start. I’d forgotten it was happening today–not because I’d already grown blasé about the launches, but because this launch had been postponed several times due to unusually cold weather in Florida. When I heard the rumble start, I snatched Nick out of his high chair and ran out onto the front porch with him in my arms. I got outside just in time for the shuttle to rise into my sight, and I pointed it out to Nick, who had no idea what I was so excited about. Then suddenly there was no sound. I wondered if I’d suddenly gone deaf, but the rumble was gone, too. And I watched as the smoke trail split in two and began falling back down toward the Earth.

Launched at 11:38 am on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger suffered a catastrophic structural failure just over one minute after launch. On board was the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. Her family and students were watching the launch on site. Mission Specialist Col. Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian-American in space and the first person of Japanese origin. Mission Specialist Judith Resnick was the first Jewish woman in space. Mission Specialist Ronald McNair was the second African-American in space. The mission commander was Lt Col Dick Scobee; the pilot was Capt Michael J Smith. The final crew member was Payload Specialist Capt Gregory Jarvis. All seven crew members died in the event. Capt Smith’s voice was the last one heard.

Back: Onizuka, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Reznick
Front: Smith, Scobee, McNair

Challenger was the first shuttle to be destroyed while on a mission. The nation was devastated. I remember watching the fragments of the shuttle fall to the earth in silence, feeling literally empty because the rumble was gone. 


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