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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Are we a product of our upbringing?




My own dad went to the moon. No really, he actually flew all the way to moon. And back.

The history books will tell you that he didn’t actually walk on the lunar surface; instead he orbited Earth’s satellite for twenty four hours in a command module no bigger than a Chevy van.

But all that happened nearly fifty years ago when I was just a little girl; my dad’s special princess as he used to be fond of calling me. Well I wasn’t his only little princess. In fact when I actually look back I imagine he had a handful of special princesses dotted about our home town, usually of the voluptuous and sassy type; blondes, brunettes, especially redheads. If it had a pulse and passed his own version of the NASA fitness test they were within his prolific firing range.

But of course all of this was back in the late sixties, a period of exceptional expectations, an era when the great American dream went into overdrive at home and sometimes disappointingly abroad. And being part of the Apollo space program was about as far out as one could go.

My dad had joined the United States Air Force during the Korean War, flying F86 Sabres, which were some of the earliest jet fighters used in active combat. He came home a decorated war hero and later studied and trained as a test pilot out west in the Mojave Desert, flying all those experimental planes which were often top secret.

And my mom. Ha! Well she was your regular forces wife; outwardly supportive of her husband, dutiful in her role as an unpaid accessory to Air Force personnel, and a veteran campaigner when it came to hiding her increasingly problematic drinking habits. I guess combining these important roles I’ve just mentioned with being married to a popular and courageous pilot kind of made mom both lonely and inadequate in equal measure. And when dad was offered a place on the Apollo space program things in her life sort of took a turn for the worse.

Of course dad being a serial adulterer didn’t exactly help matters. Years later when they went through a really acrimonious divorce, he cited his numerous extra-marital affairs the result of some sort of post-astronautical stress syndrome, as if going to the moon and back had somehow reduced his ability to adhere to his wedding vows whilst at the same time extending the range of his already overtaxed libido.

I don’t want you to think that I can’t appreciate that if a man travels nearly half a million miles into space at a speed of 25,000 mph it won’t have some kind of an effect on his well-being and general mental health, despite all the extensive training he received. After all, it would only have taken the failure of a tiny circuit breaker or the unexpected rupture in an oxygen pipe for the whole crew to have perished. The Apollo missions to the moon were a huge gamble, both with men, machines and the reputation of America’s status during a highly competitive space race. But dad thrived on danger, just the way some men do. I don’t think women thrive on danger like their counterparts; it’s not built into their DNA, preferring instead to succeed by following the instincts of their own well-laid ground rules. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, women don’t take risks they simply use logic to follow the shortest route from A to B.

The first time I witnessed close-hand dad’s unashamed detour from the matrimonial path was when I must have been seven or eight years of age. Now mom and dad always liked to entertain, especially when we moved out to Houston Texas, where mom had been born and dad was training for the Apollo space program. If my parents weren’t frequenting the local golf club’s numerous events they and their circle of friends would hold regular parties and outdoor barbeques. These were the sort of Saturday nights I remember from my childhood. I can recall times spent congregating on the patio by the swimming pool with the sounds of some bossa nova band in the background or perhaps mom’s favourite singer the legendary Frank Sinatra crooning away with the cicadas singing along in the shrubbery as back-up vocals. These proceedings were very white, very middle class, and overflowing with the gung-ho spirit of aspiring citizens pursuing the all American dream. Here in our back garden stood men sporting crew cuts and wearing chequered shirts holding a burger in one hand and a cold bottle of Coors in the other, spouting off about the pros and cons of the Vietnam war and whether they were prepared to give that old slime ball Richard Nixon the chance to have a go at running their country.

I remember that she had jet black hair which fell to her shoulders and sort of turned up at the edges like a little wave. Her eyelashes and mascara were really thick and for a woman in her late thirties the crochet mini dress she wore was way too short. Nice legs though from what I recall. I think her name was Betty or Hetty or some such. They always were. I caught them kissing behind the garage, where partially intoxicated and lacking ordinary scruples they clung to each other in an embrace far more neighbourly than was really required just to say goodnight. Maybe if the pair of them hadn’t of acted so damn guilty they might have been able to pass it off to me, a mere child, as a farewell peck on the cheek, maybe an extension of the slow dancing and general tomfoolery being enacted after too many vodka martinis round the swimming pool at this stage of the evening. But I’d seen their tongues searching, probing, and witnessed for a moment the intimacy of their shared and pent-up passions.

That same night as I lay in bed and listened to the slamming of numerous car doors and the inebriated sound of adult laughter, I realised for maybe the first time that he had lied to me. My very own dad, whom I trusted as the greatest man on earth, was simply playing a role and I was just another bit-part actor in the drama which had become his own life. He was a big star with rising prospects and he just couldn’t turn down the adulation of his many fans.

Over the next few years dads training with NASA intensified. Rumours were rife among family and friends regarding who was actually going to be the first man to walk on the moon. Believe me when I tell you that folk back then talked of nothing else. In fact the whole world went space mad. I don’t think anyone in the western world, especially in the good old U S of A didn’t directly or indirectly connect themselves with the space race; from collecting commemorative postage stamps to wearing NASA patches on your clothes, from having your bedroom covered in wallpaper bearing Saturn V rockets and lunar modules to building plastic small scale replicas of the same vehicles. The Apollo space program hung in the air of Houston like some kind of plague, and everyone became infected.

By now mom and dad’s marriage was well and truly on the rocks, ironically just at a point in history when they should both have shared the spoils of dad’s professional achievements. When I look back it’s really weird, because the only time I ever saw mom on the wagon was during those eight days when dad was away on his ‘little business trip’ as we jokingly referred to it within the family. Perhaps relegating her own husbands historic voyage into outer space to that of an ordinary salesman attending a bathroom accessories convention kind of made it all seem less dangerous, rotating the spectacle of unreality to the pliable boundaries of normality.

Whatever the reason, when I looked sideways at mom as she watched the live televised take off from Cape Canaveral it was the first time I’d actually seen her cry. And as I’ve already said, she never touched a single drop of the hard stuff until that tiny capsule parachuted out of a clear blue sky and dropped into the mighty swell of the Pacific Ocean. As she sat there on the sofa watching dad and his two colleagues being winched aboard that great big aircraft carrier and the band played a welcome, she poured herself a very generous gin and tonic and raised a toast.

‘Welcome back Mister Smarty Pants’, I heard her say under her breath while I thought to myself is this what I have to look forward to as an adult; relationships that don’t make one bit of bloody sense.

I can remember the ticker tape parade in New York and the crowds of people hollering and cheering fit to burst from the sidewalks and the windows of the office blocks above. If I close my eyes I can still feel the warmth of an August afternoon in the back seat of the convertible stretch limo as it slowly glided down Seventh Avenue towards Times Square, and just for an hour or two I really did feel like a princess, a proper princess with hordes of loyal subjects and the adoration of my people. This parade was a coronation of sorts with a fairy tale castle at the end of the road and a handsome prince waiting to kneel before me and kiss my hand.

However, like all beautiful dreams they have to end. The end came when dad decided to split his time between our home in Houston and Washington DC. He’d been offered a role as non-executive director on the board of the prestigious National Geographic and the opportunity to give university lectures on his recent experiences relating to space travel. Mom of course wouldn’t hear of leaving her extended family and as if to punish her husband for following his dreams she filed for divorce. I didn’t think about it at the time but perhaps this was the moment when dad should have made an attempt to share their dreams together, especially as mom had sacrificed over fifteen years of her own life to enable dad to pursue his ambitions. But maybe things had gone too far, mom’s steady decline into alcoholism and dads inability to keep his wedding tackle shackled to the pillar of a faithful marriage.

What you might be asking yourself have all these distant events got to do with who I am today. Well I think it was Leo Tolstoy who once said “everything is to do with upbringing”. Sounds about right. We the little people grow into big people who in turn churn out more little people. Only in my case I didn’t. And now I never will. Churn out little people I mean. I nearly did. Lost a couple when I was in my twenties, but by then it was far too late. Too late for me and too late for my unborn. Too late for the reproductive organs irretrievably damaged by the excesses of selling a part of my body many times over just to fuel a habit that in the end became impossible to conquer.

You see I don’t want to make excuses for myself but I was an only child, a little princess who because I lacked the all-important X and Y chromosomes could never follow her own father into the Air Force as a pilot. After my parent’s divorce my dad’s little princess, who never did quite earn the right to wear the crown of his unsought approval, experienced the indignity of watching this Royal patronage being passed between his many mistresses instead.

Having dropped out of college, due to being caught with a fairly substantial amount of weed in my room, I took a variety of low-paid jobs just to make ends meet. And of course one thing led to another. Unsuitable boyfriends, stealing from the till, drifting rather than falling into a life of drugs. I don’t expect sympathy, or am looking for excuses to justify the life I eventually ended up living. But I paid a price.

The regular post-divorce visits gradually dwindled to a trickle on my dad’s part, and when after many years I did finally swallow my pride and went to live with him where he’d retired to Hawaii it was all too late. During the last few months of his life both his battle with pancreatic cancer and my fight against hard drugs kind of prevented the wide fissure of our mutual separation to close together and heal properly. His final ‘business trip’ to the stars coincided with my own descent into the molten magma lying at the centre of the earth.

And what of my mom? Well she died years ago. Indirectly the drink finished her off, the deterioration of her liver only superseded by the horrendous injuries inflicted on her once homecoming queen features after a fatal car crash. Four times over the legal limit the coroner’s report stated. And her beloved Pontiac Fiero resembled nothing more than a piece of modern art, a tangle of pressed steel and polished chrome which some folk might stare at in some white washed gallery designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and all the while trying to find meaning out of the tangled wreckage of an all American marriage smashed on the anvil of bitter regrets. This was a tragedy wrapped up in a tattered shroud which they used to call the Stars and Stripes.

I haven’t really much else to say. After all, what’s the point? My last eight years on death row now compressed into just a few hours. Soon my trip down the corridor outside will begin. A short walk along the polished wooden floor and through the shiny door at the end, the one just wide enough to accommodate a medical gurney to pass in and out. This will be the very same leather bound piece of furniture which the prison authorities will strap be to before administering a cocktail of intravenous drugs. Drugs which will take my pain away for ever and ever.

I’ve just enjoyed my last meal; a KFC takeaway with all the trimmings and a chocolate milkshake to wash it all down with. Enough calories there to bring forth a coronary. Ha! Ha!

And now I think I shall take me a look outside, through the little barred window set high up in the wall of this miserable cell, where earlier this afternoon I stood on a stool and watched all those do-gooders waving their placards and distributing leaflets to passers-by pleading for my clemency. Oh do me a big fucking favour. Really haven’t these folk anything better to do with their sad little lives?

Ah that’s nice, that’s really cool. There’s a full moon tonight which I shan’t ever see again. There she is hanging low in the night sky, all proud and silver, a milky edge almost shimmering in the cold night air.

Now have I already told you? Yes I’m sure I have. My own dad went to the moon. No really, he actually flew all the way to the moon. And back.


Submitted: September 11, 2017

© Copyright 2021 Hilary Bray. All rights reserved.

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