Like many of my friends from the 1950s and ‘60s, I was fascinated by the space race.
It really was a race at that time. The United States and the Soviet Union were challenging each other, racing launch-for-launch to see who would be first in space. Just after my seventh birthday, the Soviet Union won.
We were at a church softball game behind the old elementary school in Germantown. It was a night game. At one point during the game, both teams stopped playing. Sputnik was flying over.
We all stared into the night sky. It was a tiny, distant spot of light moving in an arc across the sky. I was standing near the third-base fence and heard one of the umpires say, “Damn it. They won.”
Four months later, NASA launched Explorer 1. Neither Sputnik nor Explorer 1 did much except orbit the earth. Sputnik sent a radio signal, an electronic beep, to listeners on earth. Explorer did slightly more. It verified the existence of the Van Allen Radiation Belt, a zone of energized particles that circle earth.
From those early starts, through the manned flights of Mercury and Gemini, up to the Apollo flights that fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the moon and to return him safely to earth by the end of the decade, I was hooked on everything that NASA did. If a rocket took off, I read about it.
Twenty-two years later, a book titled “The Right Stuff” was written by Tom Wolfe. It described the selection and training of our first team of astronauts – the Mercury Seven. As a young boy, those seven astronauts were my real-life superheroes. They flew in space. They were fearless.
In 1983, a movie about “The Right Stuff” was released. Not only did I have to go, but I really needed to take my two boys with me. I wanted them to experience the same thrill I felt as Alan Shepard sat on the launch pad, waiting to be the first American blasted into space. After several delays, Shepard told mission control, “Fix this problem and light this candle.” Within minutes, he rumbled into space.
I took the boys to Dayton to see the movie on a big movie screen. I was right. They loved the film.
On the way home, as we drove east on US 35, I told them how much I loved the space race, that I remembered both NASA and the Soviet Union launching dogs and chimps into space. There was a silent pause. Josh said, “You don’t remember that.” I explained that I was only slightly younger than them when it all happened.
They just couldn’t believe I was that old.
As we passed a McDonald’s, Danny asked, “Did they have McDonald’s when you were a kid?” Josh asked, “Did they have Kentucky Fried Chicken when you were our age?” For every restaurant and business we passed, they asked the same thing. I kept answering, “No.” “No.” “No.”
Finally, we passed a Holiday Inn. The same question. This time I answered, “I’m really not sure. I believe they started about the time I was born.” The further I drove, the older I felt. By the time we got home, I told the boys I might need help getting up the steps. Josh and Danny thought that was funny.
Last week, I was giving a talk to a group of senior citizens on behalf of the American Heart Association. The theme of the talk was how to take care of ourselves as we age.
Out of nowhere I heard myself say, “Next year I will turn 70 years old.” That statement didn’t hit me until I was driving home. True, I will be 69 this October, which means that next October I will be 70 years old. Wow. That hit me right between the eyes.
Now, I’m thinking about all the evidence that shows me how true it is.
My optometrist told me that I me that I’m in the early stages of developing a cataract. Naps are becoming more and more precious. My doctor is finding more and more reasons for me to visit him more often. I’m starting to think that the music we listen to in elevators is really good music.
I love some of the newly developed sayings for old folks, such as, “Getting older is like being on a roller coaster. There are highs and low, laughter and tears and sometimes … you just might pee your pants a little.” “You know you’re getting older when the candles cost more than the cake.” “Getting old is like a haunted house. There are sounds and smells that just cannot be explained.”
And, that great quote from Mark Twain, “When your friends begin to flatter you on how young you look, it’s a sure sign that you’re getting old.”
However, my favorite quote about getting older comes from that old rock ‘n roller, Jimmy Buffett, who wrote, “I’m growing older, but not up. My metabolic rate is pleasantly stuck. So, let the winds of change blow over my head. I’d rather die while I’m living then live while I’m dead”
OK, maybe I am getting old. In fact, the first Holiday Inn opened in 1952. I was two years old when they opened. So, I am older than Holiday Inn.
But, like Jimmy Buffett and Peter Pan, I refuse to grow up.
Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.