Just Saying: Keeping focus

The plan was for an early dinner, then an HBO special on Neil Armstrong. The sometime temperamental cable box wouldn’t cooperate so we searched out “The Right Stuff” for a robust substitute as a moon-landing memorial. It starts out great and every scene that Sam Shepard is in is worth the time gazing at the TV screen.

The movie begins to wander and unravel about halfway through, but it still brings back those marvelous days of early space flight and the sheer gumption of the astronauts. But what’s more striking is the white-shirted engineers, armed with pencils, slide rules and pure analog technology, propelling a space craft to the moon, a measly — in today’s mindset — 230,000 miles away. If we didn’t do it then, in the vital ‘60s, we probably never would have.

No longer, it seems, can we focus.

I was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy in December 1968. In July the following year, they sent me to “CIC” school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. CIC is naval-speak for Combat Information Center, an interior space on warships loaded with electronics like radar, sonar and eavesdropping devices. I was on a baby destroyer, hardly a serious military threat, and lord knows what today’s ships are packed with.

Our stuff was utterly rudimentary, but you still, as a new officer, needed to get some training in the equipment so you could pretend to be knowledgeable to the enlisted men in your charge.

I immediately noticed on my first day at CIC school a leggy, lanky woman ensign, her arms folded across her chest, holding down a corner at the front of the room. What she was doing there never became clear, although I may have asked her down the road. Her answer, if any, is lost in the fog of time.

On that day, our eyes met and as people in their 20s often experience, something happened, although things happen on a spectrum from something to nothing. Ours was a something.

On the second day, our eyes still inquiring, I asked her out and we went to a local bar for a burger. Ah, youth. We soon were talking like old friends and I began tabulating how many more school days I had in Virginia before going back to my ship in Newport, Rhode Island. Her name was Eeny and she was from the Philippines. We saw each other every night thereafter.

On the night of the moon-landing, we went to the burger bar and soaked in the cascading joy. Armstrong was a naval aviator and Virginia Beach a naval beehive so Eeny and I, like dozens of other bar patrons, chose to be in uniform. When he stepped off the ladder to the moon’s surface, the room erupted and Eeny and I hugged and kissed like there was no tomorrow. Absent Eeny, I would have hugged and kissed whoever was in arm’s reach.

Fifty years later, the landing seems terrifically more grand than it did that night. I keep going back to the slide rules and the pencils. And the cigarettes and coffee. Sheer, unmitigated, American gumption.

How we stayed in touch seems a mystery. I suppose by old telephones, but I wouldn’t rule out writing her a letter or two, as I am prone to letter-writing. I broke my leg in April 1970 on my first attempt at alpine skiing at Stowe, Vermont and conveniently avoided a dreaded training cruise to Guantanamo, Cuba. I was living aboard ship and had no place to go when it set sail, so I had no choice but to hang out in a Newport Naval Hospital ward where, every once in a while, you would notice that, overnight, one of the older patient’s beds was empty and freshly made up and you never saw that person again.

Eeny and I hatched a plan. Although I was technically restricted to the hospital, I somehow finagled my way onto a Navy transport plane (I was the only cargo) to Virginia Beach, proudly hobbling with a cast on my right leg, letting people imagine I was nursing a war wound.

Eeny pulled up in a Navy sedan as I exited the air station. In the console were two gin and tonics. It was good to see her again.

Ah, youth.