My father came home from work one day with this signed picture of astronaut Gordon Cooper. But for the date on the back of the picture, I would not have remembered it was 1963. My father worked for the March of Dimes in Houston, Texas, at the time. He always said he was in public relations, but I never really understood what that meant. I think it meant he raised money. I don’t recall the details of how he got the picture, but working for the March of Dimes in their polio-fighting heyday, it was not unusual for him to occasionally meet celebrities.
There is a passage in The Right Stuff that describes how Cooper and the other six Mercury astronauts were honored with a parade through downtown Houston in July of 1962. Author Tom Wolfe painted a highly unflattering picture of the Houstonians who turned out for the parade that day. He said they made barely a sound; they just sweated and stared as the convertibles carrying the astronauts rolled by. Mr. Wolfe was not at the parade, so I don’t know how he came to have this opinion, but he was confident enough of it that he went on to say, “Anyone fool enough to stand around in the asphalt mush of Downtown at noon watching a parade was obviously defective to begin with.”
I was one of the defectives watching the parade that day, and I remember it being glorious. I saw all seven of the original American space pioneers: Shepherd, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra and Cooper.
Deke Slayton was the seventh Mercury astronaut, and he was there, too. Slayton was grounded at the last minute because NASA doctors discovered he had a heart murmur, rendering him aviation’s most sympathetic odd-man-out. Everyone in America was disappointed for Deke Slayton. After all the training and all the preparation, it must have been excruciating for him to stand by and watch while his colleagues rode their rockets into space, each new flight trumping its predecessor in historical significance.
Slayton endured the NASA equivalent of riding the bench, and I know how he felt, because I did the same thing in 9th grade football. I didn’t have a heart murmur. My problem was that I wasn’t big or fast or strong or particularly coordinated. And I possessed no football instincts whatsoever. That entire season I made it on the field for a total of two plays. The quarterback took a knee on one of them to run out the clock.
In the spring of my 9th grade year, the football coach at the high school came to speak to us about playing for his team the next fall. He made it sound very enticing. I knew in my heart I wasn’t cut out for the next level, but the coach said even if we were undecided, we should sign up anyway. He assured us we could always change our minds later and there would be no hard feelings.
So that’s exactly what I did. I signed up and later I changed my mind. I distinctly recall the day I went to the field house to tell the coach the news. I remember walking through the old building, across the painted concrete floor, and seeing him smile at me when I knocked on his office door. I stood in front of his desk and told him I had decided not to go out for the team. He leaned back in his chair and considered me for a moment, all one hundred- twenty pounds of me, and then he called me a quitter and told me to get out of his office.
I left the field house wondering how I could be accused of quitting something I had never actually started, but I also had a strange feeling of satisfaction, because it was the first time I had ever stood up for myself against someone in authority. I hadn’t let him bully me into becoming cannon fodder for his varsity squad, and it felt good.
So much of life is about disappointment and how we deal with it. There are the small disappointments, like seeing Johnny Weissmuller as a sixty year-old man, or discovering that Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland is not nearly as big as you thought it would be. And there are the larger ones, like being denied your dream of flying in space, or being on the receiving end of childish tantrum by a coach you once admired.
Because of a technical malfunction, Gordon Cooper had to manually control the reentry of his space capsule through the Earth’s atmosphere, and by doing so he showed a nervous world he had “the right stuff.” Deke Slayton persevered, and in 1975 he finally got to ride his rocket into space, proving he had it, too. I found my version of it when I used my failure as a football player as a launching pad, so to speak, to become one of the greatest football spectators of all time.
Hey, we can’t all be heroes.