Space, Politics, and Sports. Thanks, Dad


I just read another article about NASA recruiting astronauts, and some in this class will likely go to Mars. Then I look around at our political landscape, in the first summer of Trump. I shudder, and wonder if Mars can happen in my lifetime. Politics are always difficult, but things are tumultuous right now! It seems none of us can escape the controversy; it even permeates sports. Rumor has it, a talented NFL quarterback can’t get picked up because he supports Black Lives Matter. Sigh. I think of my dad, and these three subjects that he loved: Space; politics; sports. He inspired me with these topics. Can we inspire our kids in the same way, today?

It started when I was in first grade. My dad came home from work a little early on November 8, 1960. He took me by the hand and said, “Let’s go vote.” I had no idea what he meant, of course, but I went with him, anticipating something new. As we walked to the polling place in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I listened to him carefully explain that we were going to help choose who would be president.

My dad was 30 years old. His 31st birthday was a few weeks away, and I was 6. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I knew we were doing something important. By the time we reached the polls, I was excited. Dad gave me a basic understanding about the president, and now I knew it was time for a new one. This was big!

I remember all the banners and buttons and posters and all the people in the parking lot. Dad and I greeted our neighbors and friends as we walked to the front doors. Even our mayor, Mr. Harper, was there. He said hello and shook my hand as we walked by. I couldn’t go into the booth with dad, but a family friend stayed with me while he went in to vote.

When we returned home, dad switched on TV to watch Huntley and Brinkley report on the election returns. I fell asleep before the winner was known, but I was so happy. I had a feeling I was in on something. The next morning, I found out that dad picked the winner. I wore the campaign button to school and we discussed the election in homeroom. Sister Celeste told us that America now had its first Catholic president.I was so proud that I knew his name – John Kennedy. It was a new era. My father brought to my attention a sense of hope and anticipation for this new modern age.

Earlier that year, I fell in love with baseball. My grandmother and her best friend took me to my first game at Forbes Field, that summer. All season long, dad had the Pirates on the radio or TV, at home or in the car. The kids in our neighborhood played baseball in several fields around our house, and Little League was in full swing. I played in the neighborhood games, but girls weren’t allowed to play Little League, so I had to be happy with rooting for my cousins and friends. And then, spectacularly, just a few weeks before we voted, we watched Bill Mazerozski end the World Series against the Yankees with a walk-off home run in Game 7. The elation and excitement of that moment never left me.

Kennedy and his family captivated the nation. My father loved him. We watched the inauguration and paid close attention to everything the new president did. In short order, JFK also captured my imagination. In a speech in early 1961, Kennedy declared that the United States would land a man on the moon “before the decade is out.” In addition to making me learn the definition of decade, this statement stirred me to dream things I had never before considered. I looked at the moon at night with awe, thinking about President Kennedy figuring out how to get there.

On May 5, 1961 there was a television in Sister Celeste’s classroom. All morning long we sat and watched the spectacle of the first American to enter outer space – Alan Shepard (there is some cool TV footage from then). He went 115 miles high on a flight that lasted only 15 minutes, but the entire morning was spent in front of the TV, appreciating this momentous occasion. We spent the rest of the day talking about it and drawing pictures to take home. Two months later, Gus Grissom repeated Shepard’s accomplishment–no TV in school that day, but transistor radios shared the news, and there was lots of excitement about the fact that another Earthman invaded outer space.

On the morning of February 20, 1962, I was in second grade. I woke up with a sore throat. My grandmother decided I was too sick to send to school, so I stayed home. It was less than a year since JFK had announced the US would land a man on the moon by 1970. After the success of Shepard and Grissom, the decision had been made to attempt something even more wondrous. That morning, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. And I got to watch it from the comfort of my own living room! (More cool TV footage.)

That summer, I was headed for third grade and went to Florida to visit my mother. A little thing called the Cuban Missile Crisis was brewing, and in these months prior to that incident, the atmosphere was tense with Cold War rhetoric on the minds of average people. I came home knowing something very scary was going on, and the Russians were not our friends. JFK got us through it, but we began practicing air raid drills at school, hiding under our desks to protect us from a nuclear attack. As if.

A year later, I sat in a fourth grade classroom one November morning, anticipating Thanksgiving. Then a chilling announcement came over the loudspeaker. Our principal, Sister Anthony, said that President Kennedy had been shot. School was ending for the day; I couldn’t believe it. By the time I got home, he was dead. My dad’s birthday was the next day; it wasn’t his best, and I grieved with him for the loss of a man he loved so much.

Things felt pretty grim, those days. We also got sad news that year that our beloved Pirates Manager Danny Murtaugh was retiring for health reasons. The Bucs struggled in the following seasons. The Steelers had struggled for decades, and we didn’t have a pro basketball team.

Dad also loved football, and the Steelers actually showed some promise and heart in the 1964 season. But during those years, our football games were on Saturdays. Local high school games were a big deal, and that is how I learned to love football. Dad took me to games and explained what was going on. What happened at Pitt and Penn State was also of great interest in our household.

JFK died, but the space program was continued by our new president, a big Texan also known by his initials, LBJ. Years passed. Every week I took tap, ballet, and jazz dancing lessons, and marched with the town’s drill team. The Beatles came to America. We watched them on Ed Sullivan and in September 1964, and my uncle bought tickets for the entire family to see them at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. Two aunts and all of us cousins–from fourth grade to seniors in high school–saw them perform in their grey suits with the Nehru collars.

I had grown, and so had the space program. I was in fifth grade now. The Mercury program was complete and NASA launched several successful Gemini missions. The Gemini program was a series of two-man space flights that took the United States several steps closer to the moon. Gemini brought us the rendezvous of two spacecraft and docking, making it possible for a craft to leave the mother ship, go to the moon, and return by safely hooking back up to the mother ship. Gemini also proved that people could survive in space for seven or eight days, and gave us the technology of space walks, preparing man for the weightless environment of the moon, among other things.

By 1966, I had become very good at a new hobby–baton twirling. Dad and I were traveling all over the tri-state area to go to competitions, and I was winning quite a few of them. The space program was now into its newest and most incredible phase–Apollo. Three-man crews were being trained; one man to steer the mother ship while the other two landed on the moon. And Joe Paterno was hired by Penn State.

The first Apollo crew was assembled – Grissom, White and Chaffe. But on January 27, 1967, they died in a horrible fire they had no chance of escaping. The tragedy touched me; I would remember their courage all through that year as I practiced my baton routines. Every time I felt like I had done all I could do, there was nothing left, I would do one more run-through, in their memory. All my practicing paid off. In June, 1968 I won Pennsylvania State Champion in one category and placed second in another.

In December of that year, I was sled riding with my friends and had a bad accident. Suddenly, something was very wrong with my back. I struggled through many weeks of chiropractic exams and adjustments, preparing for the National Championship in January, held in St. Paul, Minnesota. All I wanted to do was be well enough to go. I went. I wasn’t well, but I performed and placed 52nd, about the middle of the field.

When I got home, I went to see an orthopedic surgeon. He didn’t have very good news for me. I needed an operation, a spinal fusion, to correct a condition from birth that was undetected but aggravated by the sled riding accident and the intense athletic activity I had been pursuing. That same month, the Steelers hired Chuck Noll.

My operation was done on June 8, 1969, and my doctor was also the Steeler’s orthopedic surgeon! That fact helped me face the surgery with some confidence, but I was really scared. I was in the hospital for a month, and because I could control my hips and legs so well from dancing and twirling, I escaped the need for a body cast. But I was in bed for a long time, and had to learn how to walk all over again. When I went home, dad put a bed downstairs in the living room so I could live there and not be isolated. Every night after supper, dad would help me get out of bed–I couldn’t bend at the waist, so it was like taking a board off the bed and putting it upright–and I would practice walking.

I was, of course, pretty much glued to the TV, and quite aware that Apollo 11 was coming soon. At 8 p.m. on July 10, the official countdown began. n July 16, they blasted off. On July 20, my dad, grandma, brother and I and watched the Eagle land on the moon. JFK’s promise had been fulfilled. When Neil Armstrong came down the ladder and placed his first foot on the moon, my dad was holding me, poised on the side of the bed so I could put my foot down on the floor at the exact same time, which I did. He held me and we listened to Armstrong say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Then we walked to the front door and looked up at the moon.

I was 15, and vividly remembered going with my dad to vote for JFK, the man who made this moment possible. I remembered Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, and all that had happened to them and to me. I felt I had made the journey with them and did something memorable to celebrate this moment, filled with tremendous hope and inspiration. I knew I would get well and walk again and do wonderful things in my life. I looked at my dad, my lifeline, my hero. Then I cried, unable to contain the emotion of the moment.

The 60s were pretty amazing, and set the stage for my love of sports and politics. In 1970, the Steelers had a turnaround season in a new stadium, with a new quarterback named Bradshaw. In 1971, Murtaugh was back as Manager of the Bucs, and Game 4 in Three Rivers Stadium was the first ever night time game played for the World Series. The Pirates salvaged a 3-0 losing effort that night, and went on to win the Series against Baltimore.

On December 23, 1972, I was home from my freshman year at Penn State on Christmas break, majoring in Political Science. My dad and I were listening to the Steeler game on the radio, sitting on the floor in front of our Hi-Fi. At that time, the NFL blacked out home games from being televised if they weren’t sold out 72 hours before the game.

This was a playoff game with the Oakland Raiders, and when the Immaculate Reception happened, we hooted and hollered and pounded the floor with glee!

I carried my love of sports with me, throughout my life. Today I make a living in the political realm, and have a telescope in my dining room to regularly look at the stars. I lost my Dad in 2008, but he is with me, always. Sports, politics, and the space program…thanks, Dad.

Maybe this story will help some kids in a new generation face the challenges of a new century. They are not seeing heroes, when they look to the leaders in politics and sports in 2017. But heroes will emerge and before they do, may our kids be inspired by the way we all respond to the summer of 2017.


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