Sad to hear about Larry Hagman‘s death. So many people remember him as J.R. Ewing, of course, but I loved his earlier, cuter role as Major Tony Nelson In I Dream of Jeannie. That show captured the joie de vivre of the space program. The bright, sunshiny palette of Barbara Eden‘s pink harem pants, Cocoa Beach sands, pink and turquoise motels, astronauts wearing their BanLon shirts charging around in their gleaming Corvettes . . . it all reflects the energy and optimism of America at this time, perhaps the last time we felt hopeful and proud of our country en masse. There was a powerful naivete about the space program. When you see the the dated, clunky launch room computers at the Kennedy Space Center exhibit(ashtrays all over the place, naturally), you just think, “Holy shit, it truly was a miracle that we got to the moon!”
My mom and dad moved to Cocoa Beach when my dad completed law school. They lived in a concrete block apartment with those fantastical concrete screens that we never see anymore. Mom said she remembered working as a secretary in the space industry, and everyone would just abandon whatever they were doing when a rocket tested or launched, running out to the beach and celebrating with cocktails.
Today I live in Merritt Island (“The Place Where Dreams Are Launched”) and I’m constantly on the prowl for 1950s and 1960s houses that are relatively intact. (Alas, there aren’t that many — they all got tackified with stucco and bay windows in the 1980s.) I was driving around Cape Canaveral the other day, and I found this old apartment complex called Palms East that was sick with midcentury detail — pastel colors, concrete screens, carports with angled roofs. It’s easy to imagine this place being built for young, single men and women working in the space industry, moving up to a two-bedroom unit when they started families. (If you read online about it now you’ll see discouraging things like “this place is a dump” . . . “police were here every night this week.”)
That’s okay, I know it was all bright and beautiful at one time. I know because I’m old enough to remember the ground shaking at liftoff, ice cubes rattling in the grownups’ glasses, kids playing on terrazzo floors, drinking Coke out of commemorative launch cups that your neighbor who worked at the Cape gave you. Kids talked about how we wanted to be astronauts, or we secretly hoped we could lose our buckteeth and look like Barbara Eden so we could meet somebody as dreamy Major Nelson. When everyone cheered, we were proud of ourselves for about ten seconds because those orange and white rocket trails meant we were ascendent, going somewhere fast.