Tuesday, August 27, 2013

It’s a Wrap

Hard to believe our summer on the boat is drawing to a close.  Next week we’ll be on our way to Budapest to begin a river cruise that will take us on the Danube, the Main, and the Rhine, through five countries and many medieval towns and villages.  I’m particularly looking forward to Cologne, the city from which my great grandparents emigrated.  As a boater, a highlight will be the leisurely navigation of the three rivers, through a total of 47 locks.

Our clearing off and packing up signals the end of our boating season here, leaving old friends, the Boat Club we’re active in, and neighborhoods that are ingrained in our sub-consciousness.  Compounding a sense of sadness was our attendance at two funerals this summer to say farewell to old boating friends, both our age.  We also had a rather sad dinner with a boating friend who had a severe stroke over the winter, a once vigorous man who is now disabled.

I’ve mentioned Shorefront Park before, where I usually do my morning power walk.  I love that little neighborhood here in S. Norwalk, so evocative of the neighborhood I grew up in Queens, but with the added luxury dimension of being on the water.  However, this lovely neighborhood suffered the wrath of Super Storm Sandy, and the devastation can still be seen, homes totally ruined, others in stages of reconstruction, even raising one house a full story to elude possible future flooding.  The storm left its mark on this area.  I usually walk early in the morning and already there is a certain late summer stillness the last few mornings foreshadowing the oncoming fall.  Indeed, time to leave once again.

I did not read as much as I would have liked during our relatively brief stay here.   But in addition to The Orphan Master which I described in the previous entry, I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.  It reads like a suspense novel and Wolfe makes you feel as if you are right there.  It mostly covers the original Mercury 7 Astronauts’ training and launches, but against the background of the Cold War of the late 50s and 1960s, a period I remember so well, but never fully realizing the extent to which it drove the space program.  The book begins though with Chuck Yeager’s breaking the sound barrier and fittingly ends with Chuck Yeager’s last test flight, the point being that unlike the Mercury 7, Yeager flew a rocket as a pilot. Wolfe’s description of Yeager’s last test flight is unforgettable, and provides a strong incentive for reading the book.
Nonetheless, there are several other selections which resonate with me and therefore I include them below.  The first is his description of where the astronauts stayed while at the Cape: Cocoa Beach.  I’ve been there and I can attest that while it has obviously been more developed, Wolfe still captures its essence and the meaning of the place to the Mercury 7:

….Cape Canaveral was not Miami Beach or Palm Beach or even Key West.  Cape Canaveral was Cocoa Beach.  That was the resort town at the Cape.  Cocoa Beach was the resort town for all the Low Rent folk who couldn’t afford the beach towns father south….Even the beach at Cocoa Beach was Low Rent.  It was about three hundred feet wide at high tide and hard as a brick.  It was so hard that the youth of postwar Florida used to go to the stock car races at Daytona Beach, and then, their brains inflamed with dreams of racing glory, they would head for Cocoa Beach and drive their cars right out on that hardtack strand and race their gourds off, while the poor sods who were vacationing there gathered up their children and their Scotch-plaid picnic coolers, and ran for cover.  At night some sort of prehistoric chiggers or fire ants – it was hard to say, since you could never see them – rose up from out of the sand and the palmetto grass and went for the ankles with a bite more vicious than a mink’s  There was no such thing as “first class accommodations” or “red-carpet treatment” in Cocoa Beach.  The red carpet, had anyone ever tried to lay one down, would have been devoured in midair by the No See’um bugs, as they were called, before it ever touched the implacable hardcraker ground.  And that was one reason the boys loved it!

And then onto Wolfe’s definition of the intangible, “the right stuff” as he so poignantly describes it: ….Next to Gagarin’s orbital flight, Shepard’s little mortar lob to Bermuda, with its mere five minutes of weightlessness, was no great accomplishment.  But that didn’t matter.  The flight had unfolded like a drama, the first drama of single combat in American History.  Shepard had been the tiny underdog, sitting on top of an American rocket – and our rockets always blow up – challenging the omnipotent Soviet Integral.  The fact that the entire thing had been televised, starting a good two hours before the lift-off, had generated the most feverish suspense.  And then he had gone through with it.  He let them light the fuse.  He hadn’t resigned.  He hadn’t even panicked.  He handled himself perfectly.  He was as great a daredevil as Lindbergh, and he was purer: he did it all for his country.  Here was a man..…with the right stuff.  No one spoke the phrase – but every man could feel the rays from that righteous aura and that primal force, the power of physical courage and manly honor.

And how did the geopolitical events influence the space program?  Probably there would have been no program, at least not in the 1960s, without those events:  ….Kennedy was convinced that the entire world was judging the United States and his leadership in terms of the space race with the Soviets.  He was muttering, “If somebody can just tell me how to catch up.  Let’s find somebody – anybody…There’s nothing more important”…Catching up became an obsession.  … Finally Dryden told him that it looked hopeless to try to catch up with the mighty Integral in anything that involved flights in earth orbit.  The one possibility was to start a program to put a man on the moon within the next ten years.  It would require a crash effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project of the Second Work War…..Less than a week later…the Bay of Pigs debacle had occurred, and now his “new frontier” looked more like a retreat on all fronts….And the tremendous public response to Shepard as the patriotic daredevil, challenging the Soviets in the heavens, gave Kennedy an inspiration…They were all absolutely startled when Kennedy said: “I want you to start on the moon program. I’m going to ask Congress for the money.  I’m going to tell them you’re going to put a man on the moon by 1970.”

The program and the book culminate with John Glenn’s first orbital flight.  The adoration of the man knew no bounds and his parade with the other Mercury 7 down Broadway brought even the city of steel and concrete to its knees: ….And what was it that had moved them all so deeply?  It was not a subject you could discuss, but the seven of them knew what it was, and so did most of their wives.  Or they knew about part of it.  They knew it had to do with presence, the aura, the radiation of the right stuff, the same vital force of manhood that had made millions vibrate and resonate thirty five years before to Lindbergh – except that in this case it was heightened by Cold War patriotism, the greatest surge of patriotism since the Second World War….But what the multitudes showed John Glenn and the rest of them on that day was something else.  They anointed them with the primordial tears that the right stuff commanded….Somehow, extraordinary as it was, it was…right! The way it should be!  The unutterable aura of the right stuff had been brought onto the terrain where things were happening! Perhaps that was what New York existed for, to celebrate those who had it, whatever it was, and there was nothing like the right stuff, for all responded to it, and all wanted to be near it and to feel the sizzle and to blink in the light…Oh, it was a primitive and profound thing!  Only pilots truly had it, but the entire world responded, and no one knew its name!
I also reread Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (merely 50 years since the last time).  It was a very different experience reading the book as a septuagenarian.  I see Roth as a young colt writing this novella, exploring themes that would develop over the next fifty plus years, with clear signs of the literary thoroughbred he would become.  Certainly the work foreshadows my favorite Roth work, American Pastoral.  Nonetheless, it was somewhat painful reading his youthful work, bringing up issues of my own formative years that were submerged long ago, ones I was hardly conscious of when I first read the book, crazy families’ impact on their children, the first real romantic love, and youth’s obliviousness that old age would one day arrive.  And true to Roth, is a very funny work as well.

The title symbolizes the soon-to-be-lost youth of Brenda's brother, as he is about to be married (like me, at an early age), but still a boy, dreaming of his basketball days at Ohio State, listening to an old radio broadcast of the big game which begins: "The place, the banks of the Oentangy."  My friend Bruce and I spent part of the summer at Ohio State University in Columbus as representatives to the National Student Association from our university.  It was a different world from New York, indeed, but we, like the youth of Roth’s first major work, were ready to be swept along into the stream of life as if it were endless.

The 1984 Paris Review carried a remarkable interview with Roth (hat tip, my son, Jonathan). The interview is a treatise on his process of writing, and I was fascinated by how “fake biography” enters his art, using the analogy of the art of the ventriloquist.  As such, Roth himself is omnipresent in his works: ….Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade. Think of the ventriloquist. He speaks so that his voice appears to proceed from someone at a distance from himself. But if he weren’t in your line of vision you’d get no pleasure from his art at all. His art consists of being present and absent; he’s most himself by simultaneously being someone else, neither of whom he “is” once the curtain is down. You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it—all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life. Millions of people do this all the time, of course, and not with the justification of making literature. They mean it. It’s amazing what lies people can sustain behind the mask of their real faces. Think of the art of the adulterer: under tremendous pressure and against enormous odds, ordinary husbands and wives, who would freeze with self-consciousness up on a stage, yet in the theater of the home, alone before the audience of the betrayed spouse, they act out roles of innocence and fidelity with flawless dramatic skill. Great, great performances, conceived with genius down to the smallest particulars, impeccably meticulous naturalistic acting, and all done by rank amateurs. People beautifully pretending to be “themselves.” Make-believe can take the subtlest forms, you know. Why should a novelist, a pretender by profession, be any less deft or more reliable than a stolid, unimaginative suburban accountant cheating on his wife?

Luckily, before leaving , just this past weekend, all the stars fell into place for us, schedules, weather, etc. and we enjoyed a weekend visit with Jonathan and Chris, yes, both sons!, and Jonathan’s lovely girlfriend, Anna, a really special person, wise beyond her years and with a patient disposition.  We took the boat out to our mooring of some thirty years, between Chimmons and Copps Islands, early in the morning, and had a leisurely breakfast there, Ann, Jonathan, and Anna later playing Scrabble, while Chris and I read.  The day was a “10,” the islands sparkling in the sun and the boat in peak form.  We wish we had had more time with them and better weather in July, but it was not to be.  Nonetheless, we saved the best for last.  And on that note, farewell once again Norwalk, until – hopefully -- next year!