The Impala Chronicles (Forty-some Years In A Life), Chapter 2
November 20, 1968 – Cursed
Twice that year, he nearly ran the Impala off the road.
The problem was listening to the radio while driving. That was pretty much his only time to listen to the news, given the irregularity of his hours, because everything hinged on launch and mission times and follow-up. Rosa could always watch Huntley-Brinkley with the kids, but in every run-up to a launch Clarence lost any semblance of a normal schedule. And when there were problems, things just got worse.
The April 4 launch of Apollo 6, the last unmanned qualification flight of the Saturn V moon rocket, hadn’t gone as planned. The early post-mortem on the pogo oscillations and second and third-stage engine failures meant he was late driving home and was just minutes out of the Marshall parking lot when the DJ interrupted Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues to broadcast Robert Kennedy’s speech announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King. Like a bad sequel, he was in the car again on the very same stretch of road two months later on June 5 in the obscenely early morning to hear the news that Kennedy himself had been shot.
The insistent pulse of Iron Butterfly’s In A Gadda Da Vida started up on the radio, the relentless beat a reminder that every month had brought more news feeding that same grief, disbelief, and anger. The Glenville Shootout race riot in Cleveland in July. The violence flaring around anti-war protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. Hell, even the Warsaw Pact troops invading Czechoslovakia and crushing the Prague Spring, the news of Hussein’s coup in Iran, and then the report of U.S. bombing in Laos just days after Johnson’s Halloween announcement that the artillery bombardment of North Viet Nam had stopped because of progress at the Paris peace talks. Some peace. He’d heard about all of them in the car on that road.
It was almost enough to make him think the road was cursed.
He pulled his mind out of the melancholy gutter by main force. The launch preparations for Apollo 8 were going perfectly, and since the first manned Saturn V mission had been changed from just an Earth orbit – a rerun of Apollo 7, but with his launch vehicle – to the first ever circumlunar one, spirits had bounced high despite the added pressure of the amped-up schedule that had him driving in to work in the predawn darkness of 6:00 AM. All the kids – Alice as well as the boys – were starting to play astronaut. And the twins’ birthday party today promised to be a resounding success because of his personal mission triumph yesterday. Those new little “Hot Wheels” cars were all the rage and hard to find, but he’d gotten lucky enough to get two for each of them. He wasn’t fool enough to think balance would be enough to ensure domestic peace, but he was confident that it would make the party itself a happy one, even if none of the little model cars were Impalas.
Like his thoughts, the radio shifted gears, this time to the gentle autumn melancholy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. He sang along half under his breath, the song suiting his mixed mood. Time it was, and what was a time it was, it was a time of innocence, a time of confidences. Long ago it must be, I have a photograph: preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you. He hoped and prayed he’d have more than that.
“We have breaking news out of West Virginia.” The DJ’s voice broke the peace after the song with foreboding, and Clarence’s fingers clenched on the steering wheel. “At about 5:30 this morning, there was a massive explosion in the Consolidation Coal mine near Farmington. The blast was felt over twelve miles away and the mine is on fire, with flames reported to reach 150 feet in the air. Reports are still confused, but authorities say there were 99 men in the mine at the time of the blast, and most of them are apparently trapped. We’ll keep you updated as new information comes in, but all indications are this may be the worst mine disaster in West Virginia since the Monongah explosion in 1907.”
He turned off the radio and listened instead to the rumble of the tires on the asphalt. He had to find a different way to and from work. This road just had to be cursed.
Author’s Note: I remember 1968 as a really hard year, with a lot more bad news than good. I think that’s partially why Apollo 8 had such a profound impact not just on me, but on many others, when for the first time on Christmas Eve we saw the Earth rise over the lunar landscape and heard the astronauts reciting the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis from the King James Version of the Bible. It was a gift of hope at the end of a year that had precious little of it.