I was talking to some friends the other night, and the conversation turned in a direction that made me think of my dad, and of a particular experience. Mostly in these posts he has not been seen in a positive light. You may recall that our relationship was great until I was around eight, and then started to worsen. He was difficult with my mum too and with friends and colleagues. But he had another side. He had a great (but rarely-exercised) sense of humour for example, and we both loved watching or listening together to things we both found funny, like Fawlty Towers. Although we didn’t relate well to one another during my teens, there was one occasion where the two of us had a really good time together. This is the story …
I need to track back to 1972. I am fourteen. As well as loving science fiction, from the late sixties I become obsessed with the American manned space programme, as many children around the world are in that techno-optimist time. When the Apollo period gets properly under way, I follow the coverage on TV as much as I can, and with increasing excitement. Around Christmas 1968 the first men orbit the moon in Apollo 8. In July 1969 I wake myself up to watch Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface (around 4am UK time). In fact I wake up and throw up, presumably from the sheer excitement. Unusually in the UK at the time, I have a little portable TV in my room (a gift from my lovely grandmother) and I remember vividly watching the muddy black and white images on that while my parents sleep on.
I have books, and magazines, and a little “Earthto the Moon” planner with miniature spacecraft so that I can mark where each mission has got to on its journey there and back. I am gripped by the drama of the Apollo 13 crisis, and NASA’s brilliance in bringing those astronauts home safely.
The Apollo missions are intended to run to around Apollo 20 or 21, but the American public starts to lose interest and the US Government shifts its priorities and curtails the programme. The last mission, it is decided, will be Apollo 17, in December 1972.
My dad was always obsessed by aviation. He should have done national service and wanted to join the Royal Air Force, but during a routine medical examination the doctor punctured one of his eardrums, shattering that dream. In later years he becomes a private pilot, the expense of which intensely annoys my mother. In 1972 he has yet to realize that ambition, but feeds his enthusiasm by buying a magazine called Flight International each week.
In the back of the magazine, there are regular ads by a tour company that runs special package holidays to Florida to coincide with NASA moon missions. We both often remark on these ads wistfully. Wouldn’t it be great to go? When the Apollo programme is axed, and my dad realizes there is one last opportunity to see a moonshot, he decides to take me! My mum does not accompany us – in fact these two weeks the only time in my life when my dad and myself are alone together for such an extended spell.
I have never been abroad before, or flown before and I am going to America! I love all things American already – comics, TV, Major Matt Mason toys … so I am incredibly excited. I have mentioned earlier that in those days I am often more relaxed and happy in situations that take me away for my normal context, where I don’t have to worry about the burden of being me, with all my gender confusions. My dad also feels the pressures of a (very different) daily life and I think this fortnight, with just us experiencing things we both find fascinating, and can talk about together with enthusiasm is a brief, golden period for the two of us.
It is just a fantastic holiday. We stay in a great hotel on Cocoa Beach (much less developed than it is now). Utterly weirdly, there is now what looks like a very ritzy hotel there called, hopefully inappropriately, Fawlty Towers! The hotel we stay in in 1972 has its own private beach with white, powdery sand. It is December, but in Florida the temperature is in the seventies and we go to the beach most days. I remember trees or bushes where the hotel grounds blended into the beach which drop little sharp burrs into the sand. Running towards the waves I often feel a little pain from stepping on some of these burrs – they don’t hurt you, it’s just a little needle pain.
Florida in 1972 has many things undreamed of in grey old Hertfordshire. The hotel has Coke machines, and huge ice-making machines close to the bedrooms. I have never seen such things. We drive in a rented American car, like we are in an episode of McCloud or something. We eat at a little Burger King, a company which started in Florida (not great actually).
The tour package itself is brilliant. We are taken to Cape Kennedy and allowed to walk up to the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building. We see old rockets and space capsules. There is an optional trip to Houston, where Apollo Mission Control is located. We are allowed nearly inside that famous room – only a glass window separates us from the banks of screens, knobs and dials that are so familiar from the television coverage.
One of my uncles is a former US Bomber Pilot, stationed in the UK during World War II – my aunt became a GI Bride and moved with him to Colorado. He has an retired USAF chum who meets up with us in Houston, takes us to eat in Galveston and arranges an “access all areas” trip round NASA at Houston, for which he still has a valid pass. I get to sit in one of the T-38 jets the astronauts use to train and to travel back and forth between Houston and Kennedy. One of the early Lunar Landing Research Vehicles designed in the early sixties is still there, and I get to sit on top of that!
After the Houston excursion, we return in time for the launch. Apollo 17 is the only one of the missions to launch at night. Those of us on the tour are taken to a location three miles from the launch site, with a very clear view of the Saturn V rocket waiting on the pad, across on the other side of the Banana River. I take a transistor radio and we listen as the local station tells us that launch, originally scheduled for about 9pm I think, is delayed. The radio station keeps us posted as the delay drags on, until Apollo 17 is finally launched, around midnight.
I will never forget it. The light from the huge engine turns the night sky into a day sky. We watch the rocket lift, and because of the distance the sound of the lift-off gets to us some moments later. I watch as the ship climbs apparently slowly, but in reality incredibly quickly into the sky. Finally, as we look up a few minutes into flight and the rocket becomes a dwindling speck, we feel the heat of the engine exhaust on our faces. I can remember it as if it was yesterday.
My dad tried, but he was a troubled soul. Most of the time during my teens he made me scared, upset, angry or all three. He had many prejudices, which he generally held onto with grim determination, but occasionally in later life, when it was a choice between holding onto a prejudice or supporting me, he supported me. I will never know, but I have a suspicion that if he had still been alive when I began to transition, he would have struggled, but in the end accepted and supported me. I think we both treasured this opportunity to have two relatively uncomplicated weeks together, filled with fun and excitement. I will always be grateful to him for taking me, and for the generosity of spirit (and actual generosity) behind that impulse. There aren’t that many Brits who have witnessed a moonshot first hand.