"An astronaut, Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard, was sitting atop a Redstone rocket in his Mercury space capsule, Freedom 7, the announcer said, and was about to be the first American launched into outer space. No, he wasn't going to orbit the earth, at 17,500 miles per hour, as Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space (a Communist!), had done less than a month earlier—thus asserting the technical superiority of our arch-enemy, the Soviet Union, and making an entire freedom-loving nation feel distinctly inferior, both intellectually and militarily. Shepard was going to ride this rocket a mere 115 miles into space, on a 15-minute, 300-mile sub-orbital flight, at 4,500 miles per hour." —from Bobby in Naziland
Two things obsessed me in the early 1960s: the New York Yankees and the space race, and it's hard to say which one I found more exciting. In any given year, I could have named all 25 Yankee players and cited most of their batting and pitching statistics. I also could have named all seven Project Mercury astronauts, given you a capsule (so to speak) biography of each one, and told you the names of their space capsules and exactly what each mission entailed. My favorite book was We Seven, "by The Astronauts themselves." I read it more times than I can remember and I still have it on my shelf.
The above excerpt is from a scene that takes place in Brooklyn's PS 249 gymnasium. Grades three through six were assembled there to listen to the launch of Freedom 7 on a big transistor radio set up in front of the gym. Like most of my classmates, I was wondering if the rocket was going to explode. That kind of thing happened a lot in those days, and it made for almost unbearable drama. People could hardly believe that America was finally sending a man into outer space.
Between the anti-Russian Cold War propaganda drummed into our heads in school (the Communists are godless, immoral warmongers who want to enslave you) and the "public service" TV commercials we watched on Saturday mornings ("We will bury you!" Khrushchev threatened), we took the space race to heart.
Alan Shepard's entire flight, from liftoff to splashdown, was a goose bump–raising patriotic rush. When frogmen recovered him and Freedom 7 safe and sound in the Atlantic Ocean, everybody in the gym let loose with an enormous cheer. Then the teachers marched us into the auditorium for Friday morning assembly, where we pledged allegiance to the flag and sang with feeling "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "This is my country, grandest on earth."
Because we were proud American kids in America, in 1961, who really did believe we lived in the greatest country in the world—a country where anything was possible, where there were no limits to what you could accomplish if you worked hard and played by the rules, and where anybody could grow up to be president.
Boy, did we have a lot to learn.
Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.
I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.