Lost in Space:
In April of 1962 construction began on NASA’s new Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) (renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in 1973) on 1,620 acres southeast of Houston. With some very creative map making the city of Houston extended a threaded tentacle 25 miles from downtown to annex the site, which was a quid pro quo for the political alliance that Johnson brought to the table in the 1960 elections. As Senate Majority Leader Johnson had been instrumental in growth of the US space program and NASA since 1958, so the location of NASA’s MSC in Texas was a political inevitability.
Just down the Gulf Freeway from Pasadena our white bread working class suburb was suddenly adjacent the scientific cutting edge of space exploration!! Just about everybody in town was crazy with speculation about how through some kind of non-specific osmosis, we were all going to live like The Jetsons.
Anticipating this bright future the First Pasadena State Bank broke ground on their new fifteen story “skyscraper,” which as of now stands abandoned awaiting demolition.
Without the shuttle program NASA is lost in space as well. Such is the whimsy of the politics of cutting edge science.
My first epiphany about racism in America happened on a hot Saturday night in Kentucky. Thunderstorms and road construction had plagued our trip north from Pasadena to Indiana and as we approached Louisville twilight faded into darkness. In 1962 the Interstate Highway was less than six years old and almost all of it was still two lane US highways that funneled onto city streets in every city. Louisville was no different and as Mac drove past the city limit sign in bumper to bumper traffic, Mom looked around, twisted around in the front seat and with a note of panic in her voice hissed, “Roll up your windows and lock the doors, we going through nigger town.”
It was well over 90o F and the night air dripped in the aftermath of a recent rainstorm, but after Rick and I rolled our eyes we reluctantly conceded to Mom’s admonition. For what seemed like an hour or more we crept through traffic and suffered while through steamed up glass, we watched black families and friends outside on front porches and sidewalks drinking iced tea, Cokes and cold beer, laughing, dancing and singing along with R&B Soul music. Watching Mac’s exasperated expression as he cussed under his breath and Mom dab sweat and running make up from her frightened face with a tissue while the muted laughter and music penetrated the windows, a question appeared in my twelve-year-old mind, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
“the Hole” at Bastrop Bayou:
In the winter of 1962 through a friend at work Mac was introduced to the Elks Lodge in Pasadena where he hit it off with a good old boy native Texan named George Stanley. George and his wife Bessie, their car crazy teenage boys Jack and Ronnie and tomboy daughter nicknamed “Sister” lived a few miles from the our place on Mulberry in a big house on a half acre lot on Fresa Street. Bessie and Mom got on well together and through the Stanleys we were introduced to a new vacation housing development on Bastrop Bayou in Brazos County south of Angleton.
After several weekends skiing with the Stanley family, Mom and Mac bought a lot across the oyster shell road and contracted a local home builder to put up a 900 square foot wood frame rough plumbed house shell. Elevated ten feet above the ground on creosote telephone poles the bare wood shell was wide open with no partitions, no wiring, no fixtures and no drywall. Over the next eighteen months we’d spend vacations and weekends finishing the house and at the top of the agenda were electricity, water, sewage and bathrooms. With temporary power and a well and pump in place, our first project was the installation of a septic tank and drain field. The going cost of contract labor was well over the dollar an hour minimum wage so when I put in my bid to dig ditches for the drain field and the hole for the septic tank, Mac chuckled and bought me a pick.
On Labor Day weekend we arrived around 7:00pm on Friday evening and staked out the field and the six foot diameter hole for the tank, then we went off to ski for an hour before the sun went down. At 8:30 on Saturday morning I began digging. The ditches for the drain field in the sandy top soil went quickly and by two that afternoon we were dumping wheel barrows of gravel to line the bottom of the ditches. With the field prepped we left the heat of the day to go skiing on the bayou. After a hearty evening meal of hamburgers, hot dogs, beans and potato salad, I was definitely ready for bed. Tomorrow morning I’d attack the big dig.
When I began around 9:00 that morning I had one small blister on my left hand and with a dab of Mercurochrome, a patch of gauze and a wrap of white adhesive tape I was ready to go. The eighteen inches were easy, but by 10:00am I was swinging the pick down into the dark grey clay that dominated the sub soils of the Texas coastal plain. Locally referred to as black gumbo, it was so dense that it could barely be penetrated with a shovel or spade, hence the pick. Breaking it up and then shoveling it out was slow going and by noon I was only a bit more than three feet deep. The deeper I dug the wetter and more densely packed the dreaded black gumbo.
Over the course of the afternoon, the men and older boys in the tiny neighborhood gathered to drink beer, smoke and comment on my progress and technique. Now with my blistered hands taped and wearing work gloves, I sucked down cold Cokes and sweated my skinny ass off as I dug deeper and deeper. By 4:30 or 5:00 I was exhausted and slowly lifting heavy shovels of gumbo over my head to the edge of the hole while Ronnie and Jack Stanley scraped it away to make room for my next effort. I don’t remember when I passed out, but I came to with Ronnie’s left arm around my waist while he pulled up on the belt loop of my cutoffs lifting me up to Mac’s beefy hands.
I looked up at him as he caught me under my arms and pulled me free from the hole. I lifted my right leg slipped on the wet clay and then swayed on my feet until Mac led me over to an aluminum lawn chair and handed me a cold wet towel. While I recovered, Ronnie and Jack dug the last six inches of “the Hole,” and Mac handed me two twenty dollar bills and a cold beer. “Here you earned it,” he said, “but don’t tell your Mom you passed out. She’ll kick both our butts.”
A gentle roar of approving male laughter erupted from the gathered neighbors… not exactly a Bar Mitzvah, but from that day on I sat down to eat at the same table as the men.
Except for attributed photos and text, all content is copyrighted © 2012 JKM