I spent a lot of my grade-school years (whatever that means) in central Florida, along the Space Coast, where I went to schools named for various space programs with awkward mottos including, yes, “Launching the Future.” There was Apollo Elementary, Gemini Elementary, Jupiter Elementary… I remember feeling kind of bad for kids who went to Hans Christian Anderson Elementary. What kind of backwards name was that? Anyway, I went to Atlantis Elementary, named for NASA’s fourth orbiter, not for the mythical city beneath the seas, or the high-end family resort in the Bahamas. It was the kind of school where you stepped outside to watch shuttle launches, then went back in and right back to class. Until you got older and jaded (the tough fifth graders) and you were “over” shuttle launches and didn’t really care that the blood sweat and tears of your parents (everyone’s parents, really) had gone into making that bird fly.
I mean, as kids, we all knew that whatever our passion was, that was the only thing that mattered. Baseball, soccer, Magic the Gathering, whatever – our parents’ passions, even if it meant sending humans to outer space and bringing them back safely, were only a distraction.
I think we all know what my passion was. And no, smart guys, it wasn’t Magic the Gathering. I wasn’t cool enough.
Over the years in Florida, my life with horses and my life with the space program intersected in odd ways. I watched rocket launches from the back of a horse – the horses never really took note of the extraordinary noise of launches… perhaps they considered it no more distracting than the long rumbles of thunder which assaulted our eardrums on a daily basis.
When I was in high school, a friend and I kept our horses at a little boarding stable which bordered the southern most border of Kennedy Space Center, and we learned a couple of important lessons about NASA rush hour and not trying to go to or from the barn during that time, as well as having a front-row seat for launches. One day a ride took us down the road and up the long driveway of an orange grove – we felt the need to buy expensive locally squeezed juice for some reason – and we sat back in the saddles to watch a space shuttle (maybe Atlantis herself) go roaring up in a pink and orange trail through the evening sky.
But one of my favorite horse+space shuttle moments took place several years and a hundred miles later, at Longwood South in Ocala, where I was working as a groom for Ralph Hill. Okay, I knew the space shuttle was heading in for a landing that day, and I knew that it was going to take a trajectory over north Florida, which would allow us to hear the ear-splitting sonic boom. But no one else did. Including the horse I was grooming in the shedrow. Like an explosion in the cloudless sky, BOOM BOOM shattered the late morning silence, and my horse leaped like a gazelle from the cross-tie, and in the barn there was a screech as the barn manager came running out of a stall, doubtlessly assuming the end had come.
It was the talk of Ocala for a full week.
The space shuttle is getting more attention now, as it heads towards its retirement, then it has since its inception. It will always be wrapped up in my memory of childhood, tightly bound with horses, endless swamps, thunderstorms, and gleaming white roads, glittering in the Florida sunlight.