Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Women and the Global Imagination: At Full Thrust

Carol P. Bartold

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Carol P. Bartold recalls the space race from a child's perspective. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.


At Full Thrust

I became a child of the Space Age in the backyard on a summer night in the late 1950s when I was about four years old. I remember a black sky with only a few starts twinkling. Dad set up two lawn chairs in the dark. I pulled mine close to his and watched him look up to scan the sky.

“What are we looking at?” I asked.

“Sputnik.”

“What’s a Sputnik?”

“It’s a satellite flying in space, higher than an airplane. The Russians shot it way up there in the sky. They might be using it to spy on us, watch what we’re doing down here.”

I pulled my chair closer to his until they touched. “They might see us right now?”

“Could be. Nobody knows.”

I didn’t like that idea at all.

“If we see it we’ll see only a blinking red light flying across the sky. It will be very small.”

I slouched in my chair and looked up. If somebody in Sputnik was looking down at us, how could they see anything in the dark, I wondered? What were they looking for? I wasn’t sure where in the big sky to look but I picked a spot. I was afraid that if I changed my focus I’d miss something. I tried not to blink.

Dad jumped. “There it is!” he yelled. “Look, there’s the red light.”

I had to follow his finger pointing and tracing an arc to see the tiny light that flashed across the sky. I had never seen anything so far away that had come from Earth. The hair on my arms stood up. I reached for his hand.

“Look at that,” he said to the universe. “Outer space.”

“Are there people in Sputnik?” I asked.

He gave my hand a squeeze and said, “No, but someday there might be.”

“That would mean they’d be in heaven, right?”

“Maybe, but nobody really knows.”

We sat in the backyard holding hands until Sputnik disappeared.

**

When the time came to outfit me for first grade, for my first trip into the big world on my own, astronauts were training to go into space. There was even talk of sending men to the moon, maybe in ten years. But that was a lifetime away and I had more earthly concerns like school clothes and shoes, pencils and notebooks.

My mother and I stood at the head of an aisle in a variety store, a canyon stacked floor to ceiling with lunch boxes of assorted shapes and every color imaginable. I searched up and down the shelves for something I liked. I didn’t want the lunch box painted like a barn or anything with Huckleberry Hound or Cinderella.

I spied a metal lunch box, dark blue like the last light of the sky before black night, and I remembered the night Dad and I saw Sputnik. Against a background of stars, images of rocket ships and satellites flew across every side of the lunch box and trailed flames as they whizzed past planets and moons.

“This is the one,” I said.

“I don’t know,” said Mom. “That doesn’t look like something a girl would carry.” She took the Space Age lunch box from me, put it back on the shelf, and steered me toward pinker, softer, more girlish lunch boxes.

I walked back and got my Space Age treasure. “I want this one.” I didn’t need something a girl would carry. I already knew all about that stuff. Space was an invitation to adventure, to something brand new, and that’s what I wanted.

“I’m afraid the kids will make fun of you,” Mom said. “This is the only lunch box you’ll get. I’m not buying you another if you get tired of this one.”

“I won’t get tired of it.”

**

Teachers herded the whole second grade to the cafeteria on a spring morning in 1961. For once, I didn’t care that kids in my class pushed and shoved and walked up the backs of my heels. I imagined that the pictures on my lunchbox were about to come to life. This morning the first American astronaut would fly to space. I wasn’t a fighter but I raced and jostled against the bigger third and fourth-graders and pushed one or two out of the way, for a good place to sit on the floor in front of the big television sets. I ran to an empty spot in the front row and staked out a good seat.

One black and white image filled the television screen – a slim rocket, poised on the Cape Canaveral launch pad, pointed straight up toward space. The capsule perched on top looked like a dot. Inside, Alan Shepard sat, crouched, and waited to become the first American in space. If I were him I would be excited but, I thought, I also might feel scared, of the rocket and of what might be in space, of getting back home.

I fidgeted while a clock on the television screen counted down the time until lift-off. When it got to one minute, our teachers shushed us and told us to sit still. At ten seconds, a flight controller began to count aloud. I realized this space flight was going to happen for real. This wasn’t some game or movie or cartoon. All the kids joined in the last of the countdown but I sat, mute, watching. “Ten, nine, eight …” At zero he announced, “Ignition.” I sat up straighter as plumes of smoke and steam billowed out from the bottom of the rocket. It began to lumber upward.

The rocket moved so slowly that I wondered how it would ever be able to fly all the way to space. For the first time all morning I thought something might go wrong and I wanted to close my eyes in case it did, but I couldn’t stop watching the rocket move up, up, up.

“We have lift off,” the flight controller said without inflection. I felt relieved. The kids around me cheered but their noise sounded far away.

The big rocket on my lunch box showed flames shooting it into space, so I expected to see fire from the Shepard’s rocket. When its first stage flamed out and fell toward the Atlantic Ocean I didn’t worry. The second and third stages took over and shot the rocket further up into the sky and away from earth’s gravity. I thought it was safe to cheer with the other kids when Mission Control announced that Shepard had made it into space.

I couldn’t understand any of the radio transmissions between the men at Mission Control and Shepard. They spoke in a clipped, secret language with long, confusing strings of numbers and random letters. I listened anyway and tried to figure out what they were talking about. But when they said, “Over,” their voices told me things were going well.

After a few minutes the television picture changed from Cape Canaveral in Florida to the Atlantic Ocean. The camera was on an aircraft carrier. Shepard’s capsule was due to splash down in the ocean only a few minutes after lift-off and the ship waited to retrieve the astronaut and his small craft. Nobody knew how this would go, this getting to the edge of space and then falling back to earth. Monotone voices from Mission Control heightened the tension. All was still and quiet in the cafeteria. I waited and hoped the parachuted capsule would fall safely into the ocean. How hard would Shepard’s capsule hit the water, I wondered? Would it float? I hoped it didn’t leak. Would he be okay when the divers opened the capsule’s hatch? I held my breath until I saw the brand new astronaut wave to the world from the deck of the ship.

A fifteen-minute flight, no more than a poke, into the lowest range of outer space had pushed my boundaries beyond the world. At lunch that afternoon a lot of the kids in my class took great interest in my lunch box, and I thought that was pretty cool.


Carol P. Bartold graduated with Honors in Music from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia and studied Business Administration at California State University, Los Angeles. She holds the Master in Fine Arts in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She works for film distributor Picturehouse and is the senior reporter for www.MyHometownBronxville.com.