T-minus 3 months
Cape Canaveral, Florida
The hardest part about traveling at the speed of light is stopping. Of course, they never taught us this back in Houston. They were all about getting us to the moon at a mere 25,000 mph, and back safely. Pick up some rocks, flip off the Russians and smile for the remote cameras. Being good military boys, we were cool with that.
The pay was good, no one was shooting at us, and the girls at Cape Canaveral were real good at holding us tight on the beach at night. There were worse places to be, some place in Asia called Vietnam was heating up. Korea and Germany had the cruel winters of our forefathers, and the ships at sea held no fascination, unless they were picking up your space capsule after a successful return from Out There.
Sitting at my favorite picnic table at Chauncey's Oyster Bar with the other guys down South Cocoa Beach way we would talk it up real big and macho. The girls with us were practically hypnotized by every word we said. Vinny played this up the best of anyone by jumping up on the table sometimes and getting the ponytailed fans to give him a big T minus 10 countdown.
"10!" he would start the count, flexing his left bicep and starting his slow rotation atop the table.
The girls would almost drool, but would religiously wait a moment and then in their fascinated voices, almost scream.
Vinny would flex his other impressive arm, to the giggling delight of his launch team.
He lifted his Miami Dolphins football t-shirt, some new expansion team that year, and flexed his multi-cubed stomach. I looked around and thought a few of the girls were going to pass out before he got to the good part.
They cheered him on, and off came the shirt altogether.
By this time, old Chauncey would be spying on us through the salt encrusted screen window, to make sure we weren't getting too out of hand. He tolerated us more than most would because we were military boys, like he used to be. That patience would get us to 7, maybe 6, but it was the fact that we were also astronauts that allowed Vinny to continue his countdown further.
A few of the older girls started to whistle, like we might at a strip bar. His muscles rippled like the neck of a bull chasing red. Of course, Vinny had turned a quiet, almost broke Oyster bar into a profitable strip joint tonight. All of us remaining guys moved away from the picnic table now, having seen the routine before. He was half drunk, our defacto leader in training, and a genius at firing up the women folk.
Down came the zipper of his khaki shorts. The girlish screams were deafening. It was a good thing Chauncey already was. I turned to look inside the bar, no families had shown up yet. Good.
They all panted in unison, and the button at the top of his shorts released, the pants falling slightly on his hips. I was relieved he had remembered to wear underwear this time.
The girls were practically climbing up on the table with him, but like the good entertainer he was, he gently pushed them away, smiling that victory smile he was slowly earning second by second.
Some of the girls were covering their faces with their hands. Naturally, their fingers were parted enough to let them continue watching in some perceived mask of decency. These were good girls, raised in Southern households of conservatism. But, they were also human, slightly drunk and unfairly overwhelmed by a man that had been twice the speed of sound that very morning.
Vinny's hands went up to the top of his shorts, and held for that one last moment of mystery.
The girls all stood up jumping and screaming and easily hiding Vinny from the rest of us guys. That was fine. We had seen him in his underwear before.
Chauncey finally pushed open the screen door, but I saw him coming and gently put my hand on his shoulder.
"Hey Chaunce,” I deflected. “We got ourselves a rocket launch tonight!" I had my other hand in his, sliding a $10 bill into his grip.
"This is a family establishment Marvin, ya'll can't be getting all naked out here." His eyes looked down to see his tip, then wandered back up to gaze at the several pairs of female legs up on the picnic table.
"I know. We're not. He still has his underwear on."
Chauncey looked a little over my head and frowned.
"Ya'll got 5 minutes to clear out Marvin. And, no. He doesn't."
I turned quickly and couldn't even see Vinny, but his briefs were around his ankles and there was a lot of manic giggling.
The other guys were ready to move the party somewhere else, and I knew if we didn't soon, the police would be there.
"Hey!" I shouted. "The cops are coming!" I winked at the other guys, giving them the bluff. "Let's move this party to the beach."
I looked at my watch. 19:50. We had about 20 minutes to make it to our favorite spot to watch launches, at the beach.
"Girls! Girls! The Cape is launching a satellite tonight, in 15 minutes. Let's go!"
Several of the shyer girls moved first, a little overwhelmed by Vinny's performance.
"Ahh..." I heard disappointed female voices, as Vinny reached down to pull up his pants, all of them.
"Come on honeys! The rocket waits for no one!" Vinny broadcast, stepping down off the table, a little flushed.
"Thanks Marv," he whispered. "I was about to get a little crazy there." He pulled on his Miami Dolphins shirt despite five or six of the launch team trying to help him.
"About to, eh?" I teased.
We all piled into four convertibles and almost raced down to the dunes just outside the base perimeter. The weather was perfect. Perfect for a rocket launch, perfect for swimming and perfect for everything else that was about to happen.
We lined up our cars, facing the Atlantic and brought out our remaining beers. Blankets came out of the trunk and shoes got left behind.
I watched everyone pair off out toward the dunes, just in time. The Gemini boosters lit up the Florida swamps and sky like God's cigarette. I sat alone on the hood of my '58 Thunderbird and wondered how much longer I could wait on Ann, my high school honey from Orlando. Her heart was in engineering far more than drinking and debauchery. She might have come with us tonight, except for some exam later in the week. PhD, the boys would say. Piled Higher and Deeper.
The flames shooting out of the tail of that rocket crackled the air in some kind of cosmic ripping of the sky. My eyes raced ahead as I watched, and prayed. There went the future, my future. I could hear the music in my heart, feel the crescendo rocking. It was my time to go, my time to move among the stars. My time.
As I sat there on the warm hood of my car, leaning against the windshield, the rocket moved quickly to the point where the flames were not much bigger than the surrounding stars.
That star light was coming at me as fast as anything in the universe could travel. I could feel it's message slamming into my chest like a lover's promise. It had traveled for years to find me, here on the beach.
I raised my clenched fist up into the night sky, in victory. It might have been the beer, but my eyes filled with tears as I heard the universe call my name. It was indeed my time.
- look for Einstein's Garden in time for Christmas