The Impala Chronicles (Forty-some Years In A Life), Chapter 3
July 20, 1969: Moon Magic
“Dad, tell them to stop! They’re being brats again!”
One quick glance in the Impala’s rearview mirror showed that nine-year-old Alice, stuck in the middle of the back seat between the twins, was ineffectually battling their attempts to poke each other around her. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. He caught Rosa’s raised eyebrow from the passenger seat, the look that said, they’re your sons, and sighed. He turned down the volume on the radio, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising, and raised his voice.
“Frank! Tony! Knock it off. We’re almost at the beach, but if you two don’t can it, we’ll turn right around. I mean it!” He always thought it wasn’t so much the threat as the tone of voice. They were good kids, but, well, seven years old and boys; that pretty much said it all. He waited for the usual he started it whine, but it didn’t come; instead, the view out the window caught Frank’s eye, and he almost hit Alice in the nose as he bounced, pointed, and squealed.
“Look, look! Is it real?”
The entire roof of the square little roadside diner was hidden beneath a gigantic fiberglass crab, painted in lifelike colors. Galveston boasted about its seafood, but this was really taking it to extremes. Still, it provided a perfect opportunity.
“They get that size eating rowdy little boys,” he said, and teased in time with the song, “Are you prepared to die?” That earned him an eyeroll and a shake of the head from Rosa.
“You’re incorrigible.” But she was smiling.
He was smiling a lot himself. They hadn’t had a vacation in a long time. The pressure to meet Kennedy’s deadline of a man on the moon by the end of the decade meant that everyone had their noses to the grindstone, and the inexorable march of time brought that deadline scary close. Four missions planned to launch in a single year made for a lot of pressure and demand. It felt wrong even now, being away during the keystone mission, but he’d done his part. A flawless launch meant the launch team had some downtime while the pressure was on at Mission Control in Houston, so this was the perfect opportunity for a road trip. Rosa had packed the trunk on launch day, betting things would go off without a hitch, and they’d hit the road for Texas long before dawn the next morning. The end of the trip would be Houston, with fingers crossed that there would be a party to welcome the astronauts home, even though they’d be in the mobile quarantine facility and unable to join in the festivities.
In the meantime, however, there was Galveston beach, and maybe some time on the sand in the sun with waves rolling in – emphatically not crashing – and raucous seagulls screeching would finally get Rosa and the kids to stop singing that Glen Campbell song. The radio started Elvis’s In The Ghetto just as they pulled in to the parking lot at the public beach, and he clicked it off quickly. No downers today. No ghetto songs, no Chappaquiddick news, no more word of the Weatherman faction taking control of the Students for a Democratic Society or reports of more gay rights riots like Stonewall. Just happy things.
All four doors popped open and they bailed out of the car in a riot of laughter, towels, beach blankets, toys, and a cooler. Wooden steps led from the parking lot down to the beach, and he paused on the steps. There were fewer people on the beach than he’d expected and the beach itself looked odd, pockmarked with hundreds of little holes like the myriad tiny craters on the moon. The holes were everywhere; they even covered a few when he and Rosa spread their blanket.
“What was that?”
Alice had gone stock-still, staring at the sand about twenty feet away, and they all turned to look. At first, he saw nothing; then a scuttling motion in the sand revealed a small crab only an inch or so long hustling across the sand and darting down a hole. Scanning across the beach, he caught more of those small flurries, quick furtive forays of crabs from hole to hole, and he chuckled.
“They’re crabs, honey. Just little crabs.”
“But where did it go?”
“Down a hole.”
“Yeah, like the one you’re standing on,” Tony pointed out helpfully, and Alice jumped aside with a shriek, only to land on yet another hole and shriek again.
“Eeeew! Eeeew! Mom, they’re everywhere!”
“They won’t hurt you, sweetie. They’re a lot more scared of us than you are of them.” Rosa’s attempt at reassurance fell flat when another crab gave her the lie by scuttling across the edge of the blanket and down another hole, and Alice shrieked again and stamped her sandaled foot.
“I hate this place! I want to go back to the motel, where there’s a pool and the water’s clean and there aren’t things running over you!”
“Maybe there’s a really big one, like the one on that building,” Frank chimed in. “D’you think we’ll see a big one, Dad?”
“They don’t really get that big,” he said, but knew it was a lost cause as Tony, behind Alice, picked up the theme.
“Yeah, a really big one! An’ it’ll come an’ pinch your toes right off, and then your ankle and your leg!” He suited actions to words by pinching her while he spoke, and she swatted him.
“Stop it! You’re nasty!”
“An’ you’re scared! Allie is a scaredy-cat! Allie is a scaredy-cat!”
“I’m not scared! But I don’t like it here, and I’m not staying!” With that, she flounced off back toward the parking lot, trailing her beach towel and jumping over every hole in her way until she bolted up the stairs and took refuge with the car, sitting on the rear bumper and knuckling away angry, embarrassed tears. Clarence and Rosa exchanged a speaking glance, and then she rolled her eyes heavenward and started picking up the blanket. He corralled the boys.
“Don’t you be mean to your sister, boys. That’s not nice.”
“But why can’t we stay?” Frank complained. “Just because Alice is such a girl.” He laced the word with seven-year-old scorn and toed the sand. “We could catch ‘em. It’d be fun.”
“It wouldn’t be much fun for the crabs,” Rosa said. “That’s probably why there aren’t more people on this stretch of beach. I see more people further down,” she added to Clarence, pointing her free elbow off to the right and nodding. “Maybe we’ll try again there tomorrow, see if it’s better.”
“Worth a try,” he agreed, and collected the last of the stuff. “C’mon, guys; back to the car. We’ll hang out at the pool, and then what do you say we watch the moon landing? It won’t be long now; just a few more hours.”
There was still magic in the moon; that prospect diverted them very handily from the crabs.
“Can we stay up and watch while they walk around, too?” Tony wheedled.
“It’s going to be late,” he warned as he chivvied them back to the car. “They’re supposed to go to sleep for a while after they land, ‘cause they’ll have been up for a long time. You might fall asleep, too.”
“I won’t!” Frank said staunchly.
“Me neither!” Tony agreed.
But in the end, it was Alice who stayed awake the whole time. They’d all watched the landing – Rosa took his hand and squeezed when he started muttering about it taking too long, fretting about the fuel running out – and the walk had happened sooner than he’d thought, since Armstrong and Aldrin skipped the sleep period out of wired eagerness. Even so, the twins were long asleep by the time the grainy, ghostly black and white picture showed Armstrong hopping awkwardly down the LM ladder. For the whole two and a half hours of the moon walk, Alice sat on the floor in front of the room’s small set, utterly rapt in the snowy, indistinct images. Sitting next to him on the edge of the bed, Rosa bit her lip, shook her head, and cried silent tears of wonder and joy, and what he felt, words couldn’t express.
In the small hours of the morning while their children and the astronauts slept, he and Rosa, by silent mutual agreement, eased out of the motel room and sat on the Impala’s trunk, looking up at the sky. They weren’t the only ones outside, looking at the sky; not far away, another couple swayed in each others’ arms as John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance floated softly from their car radio. The waxing crescent moon wasn’t visible any more – it had set just before midnight – but even so, he could see it in his mind’s eye. He knew he would always be able to see it, just the way it had been that night, but that he’d never see it the same way again.
“We did it, Rosa,” he whispered. “We made it. There are men on the moon, right up there, right now. We’ve walked on another world. Nothing will ever be the same.”
“Some things will,” she said, and took his hand. Something about the tone of her voice caught him, and he looked at her to see her smile. “Some things will be more of the same.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, but she just shook her head, still smiling.
“You remember that station wagon you wanted? Back when you bought the Impala?” He vaguely remembered a flash of red, and nodded. “You really should have tried harder and gotten it.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, bewildered. “I thought you loved the Impala.”
“I do. Don’t get me wrong. And I’ll miss her. But – she doesn’t have enough space.”
He looked at her, uncomprehending, and then the realization washed over him as she said, “We’re really going to need that third seat.”
“That wagon didn’t have one,” he said stupidly, and then his tongue and his body finally caught up to his brain and he slid off the car and took her in his arms. “Really? You’re – pregnant?”
“Really,” she agreed, with just a hint of dryness betraying her amusement at his stupefaction, and all the joy just overflowed. He scooped her up and whirled her around, and then set her back down on the Impala’s trunk with exaggerated care.
“When?” he asked, and she chuckled.
“You don’t have to sell the Impala just yet. By next February, though, we’re going to need a wagon with a third seat. Or a VW bus.”
“We’ll have to tell the kids,” he realized, and she put a finger across his lips.
“After this trip,” she said and patted the car, then rested her hand on her flat stomach. “Let’s just enjoy it together. All of us.”
Author’s Note: I’d have loved to take the Impala to Woodstock and to have commemorated the release of Led Zeppelin I, but the moon landing dominated this year for me. And I wish I could have countered the boys’ dismissive disdain for “girls” by pointing out that Golda Meir had become the prime minister of Israel, but kids really wouldn’t have cared. The holes and crabs on Galveston beach and the monster crab on the diner’s roof, by the way, come straight from my own childhood memory of a visit to that beach; we rapidly abandoned the beach and hung out instead at the motel’s nice clean pool!