Monthly Archives: April 2014

Astronaut Shot Down By a Nun

Up for sale at Heritage Auctions (minimum bid $1,000) is a great series of letters between Apollo astronaut Jack Swigert (the cute swinging single one in Apollo 13) and actress Dolores Hart.  Hart was a successful and beautiful actress with a firm Catholic faith — so firm that she became a nun in 1963.  It is cute to see this tough aviator/astronaut write her a fan letter, then eventually work up his nerve to ask her for a dinner date.  She turned him down, and he backpedalled and acted like he wasn’t really asking her for a date.  I’m attaching notes and images from heritageauctions.com.   This was featured in one of my favorite space blogs, lightthiscandle.com.  Dolores had some DAMN strong faith.  I would not have refused a date with Jack Swigert!

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Jack Swigert Archive of Letters to Actress Dolores Hart, 1961-1963. Jack Swigert was chosen as an astronaut in April 1966 as part of the fifth NASA group. Previous to that he was an Air Force pilot flying jet fighters in Korea and then a test pilot for Pratt Witney and North American Aviation. He is best known as the last-minute substitute for Ken Mattingly as command module pilot on the ill-fated Apollo 13. Dolores Hart was a talented and beautiful young actress who made her debut in Loving You as Elvis Presley’s love interest in 1957. She later appeared with Elvis again in King Creole. After several successful movies including a part as a nun in Francis of Assisi, she actually did join a religious order in 1963, becoming a Roman Catholic nun at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Pilot and future astronaut Jack Swigert read an article about her in Parade Magazine in 1961 and, as a Catholic himself, was impressed with her religious views (and beauty, of course) and started a correspondence with her. These are the letters he wrote her over a two year period. Most are well-worn with notes written on them by Hart or her secretary. Also included in the archive are various clippings about his career. Overall good. Excerpts follow.

 

October 22, 1961, two pages handwritten, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Without a doubt you’ll get many letters but it is still a hope that this one gets by the many mail openers- and to you personally.
“Just wanted to express my thought on the fine article in Parade Magazine— especially about your views on religion and its place in your career. To be sure there isn’t much that reaches the public from that field which shows religion has much of a place-especially from the Catholic side. It is good to see that religion has the meaning and importance to you.
“In my case, the Jesuit education in Denver gave me the foundation and I think my test pilot occupation helps me to retain the importance of religion which sometimes escapes in a modern world… This wasn’t meant to be a religious letter. Impetuous as pilots sometimes are, just thought you might like to know someone from the other side of the country likes your ideas and wishes you well. Sincerely Jack (Swigert)”

 

March 31, 1962, two pages handwritten with envelope, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Have an airplane for the Easter weekend and will be westward bound. L.A. being only about 1½ hours from Denver should put me there sometime Saturday morning. If you have no plans for Saturday evening- or the afternoon for that matter it would be a most pleasant end to a long trip to have dinner and a drink together.
“Thanks again for the pictures and taking the time to answer my letter about the Parade article… With best wishes Jack Swigert”

 

April 18, 1962, one page typewritten (carbon), Hart to Swigert.
“Dear Jack: It was most thoughtful of you to include me in your Easter holiday plans, but, unfortunately, I am unable to accept your invitation to dine with you during your visit to Los Angeles… Sincerely. Dolores Hart”

 

May 9, 1962, three pages handwritten with envelope and clipping, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Your letter must have reached Conn. Just about the time I was leaving California for Denver and points East…
“Imagine our two professions are much alike. There’s a challenge and, with something different all the time, it certainly never gets to be the 9 – 5 routine. But after Glenn’s ride it’s obvious where the future is in the flight test field… Sincerely Jack”

 

June 2, 1963, two pages with envelope and color photo, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Your letter came while I was at the Manned Space Conference in Dallas…
“Have I been guilty of creating the wrong impression?… Remember- it was an article about you in Parade that prompted my letter way back when. Felt that an article which revealed high religious and moral values together with intelligence and femininity was too unusual a combination for modern Hollywood to go unacknowledged… Best wishes Jack Swigert”

 

Swigert, who died of cancer in 1982, never married. This was addressed in his New York Times obituary: “He was a lifelong bachelor, and some of the other astronauts, all of whom were married, joked that he was somewhat of a swinger. One of his sisters once said he had ‘a girl in every airport from coast to coast.’ He used to say that he was not a confirmed bachelor but that it was just that he had just not met the right woman. As an astronaut, Mr. Swigert lived in apartment near the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, which he had outfitted with a beer spigot in the kitchen and an elaborate stereophonic sound system.” Here is evidence that he did try to meet the right woman in the early sixties but things just didn’t work out. Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000.

 

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All Our Names

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m a voracious reader, a lifetime book slut, carrying multiple books everywhere I go like a security blanket.   Here’s a review of the latest novel I’ve read.  I think just about anyone and everyone would enjoy it.  Originally written for the Friends of the New Smyrna Beach Regional Library website,  it is cross posted here by kind permission of Friends President Diana Bardyn.  (folnewsmyrna.org)

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu tells at least one love story. The ending made me cry, and it will probably make you cry, too. Now that I’ve got that out on the table, here are some of the other things this wonderful novel is: it ‘s a tale of friendship, of being an outsider, of losing and forming an identity. This is a novel of political and social upheaval as seen from the personal micro-threads of its main characters.

One narrator is a young man who leaves his family farm in Ethiopia for the busy city of Kampala, Uganda. We never learn his given name, although he alludes to a long string of family names and titles. He makes friends with another young man from similar circumstances, who calls himself Isaac. Both young men dream of achieving greatness in the heady days of post-colonial Uganda in the 1970s. These are the days where the dream of Pan African freedom is quickly fading and corrupt leaders like Idi Amin have twisted the dream into a revolutionary nightmare.

Even though they are too impoverished to afford tuition, the narrator and Isaac gravitate to the university. Transforming themselves from outsiders, they gradually make their reputations as campus radicals. Isaac, the braver and bolder of the two, forges an identity by attaching himself to a revolutionary figure named Joseph. His transformation from a saucy student rebel into a deadly serious thug, and the personal sacrifices he makes for power, are heartrending.   The narrator’s friendship with Isaac endures, however, and both young men are forced into political exile after a violent coup.  Mengestu skillfully withholds just enough information to let us know that one of the young men escapes to America with the identity and passport bearing the name “Isaac Mabira.”

The second narrator is Helen, a young social worker in a small Midwestern town. Her job has eroded her idealism and she’s running low on compassion. She takes on the assignment of foreign exchange student Isaac. Not particularly curious about his background, she’s happy that by taking Isaac to the university library and helping him shop for Goodwill furniture, she can avoid going to the hospital to visit terminally ill clients, prison inmates, and boring staff meetings.

On the surface, Helen and Isaac have little in common but their youth. Helen, however, is as weary of her hometown as Isaac was desperate to escape his Ethiopian village. Although she still lives in her childhood home, Helen has little to say to her husk of a shell-shocked mother who has never recovered from the departure of Helen’s father.   Helen regularly packs boxes of belongings and puts them in the basement until her bedroom is nearly empty. She’s been leaving for years, even though she doesn’t know where she’s going.

Isaac likes Helen’s loud voice and she, full of misconceptions about Africans, is surprised that he isn’t tiny and malnourished. They share an offbeat sense of humor and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Isaac offers little information about his recent past, and Helen doesn’t ask.

Isaac forces Helen to see her hometown through an outsider’s eyes. As they grow closer, Helen is forced to reckon with a post-Civil Rights American town in the 1970s that is not quite ready for an interracial couple.   In one painful scene, Helen takes Isaac to a diner she’s frequented since childhood. As people stare and the waitress suggests that Isaac takes his food in a Styrofoam to-go box, Isaac insists that they stay put and finish their meal. Isaac, no stranger to the daily reality underlying “progress,” says, “Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces. “ Helen comes to realize that the Isaac she loves is just the tip of the iceberg; the parts he’s kept from her are dangerously vast, murky, and unknowable to her.

Mengestu cleverly builds suspense and keeps the reader in a state of uncertainty. He achieves this disorientation partly through alternating narrators, switching from Uganda to the Midwest. Not only do we not know until fairly late in the novel which Isaac Helen is falling in love with, but also there’s a tense time constraint to their affair. Isaac’s student visa will expire in one year. One day, Isaac gets shattering news from Uganda. His identity unravels, and the only person who can help him weave a new one is Helen, if she can stand to hear the stories he has to tell.

Author Mengestu is listed on the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list of gifted young writers. He has written two previous novels about the Ethiopian diaspora, but this is the first book told partially from the perspective of a native-born American. Born in Ethiopia, Mengestu came to America at an early age. Although he’s covered parts of Africa as a journalist, he has said that the story of the two Isaacs does not reflect any specific chapter of Ugandan history, just the general progression from idealism, to violent revolution, to escape and exile.  And love, as always, is universal.

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Mother of Reinvention

I haven’t posted since December! I’ve had some sadness and a severe case of blogger’s block. Every topic I thought of just made me go, “Meh!”

 

2014-03-25 14.19.54(Sculpture at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) 

A couple weeks ago I toured Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a friend for no other reason than we both love architecture and airplanes. A man on our tour asked, “Do you ladies have children or grandchildren going here?”  My friend, never one to shrink from male misassumptions, said, “No, we don’t. What makes you say that? Maybe we’re here because we’re prospective students.” Why not? I thought. Given the time and money, both of us could learn to fly and start new careers. While this might not happen literally, it’s a good metaphor for starting afresh, finding my wings, and flying again.

People, I have been SO depressed! My firecracker mother-in-law who lived with us passed away in January. Gloria was a sharp lady who loved fiercely but didn’t suffer fools.   She’d be the first person to feed stray cats and help those in need, but I’ve seen her say, “Go fuck yourself,” and slam the door in somebody’s face if she thought she was being swindled. Her death really flattened our household, and my husband and I had a couple of rough months where we woke up sweating every night reliving scenes from Gloria’s final days and wondering if we made the right decisions about her care.

I’ve had my own personal mortality lesson in the form of menopause. I have staunchly resisted writing about it because I’m embarrassed by it. I’m just so tired of menopause jokes, complaints, and stereotypes, many of which I lived through at work.  I remember so many coworkers having hot flashes and putting mini-fans on their desks.  They’d crank the air conditioning so low I’d be wearing three sweaters. I remember their snappiness and brain farts being chalked up to, “Well, she’s just going through menopause.” Part of me always thought they just needed to get some hormones, get their acts together, and quit making the rest of us suffer.

For the record, I’m now saying, “Respect, ladies! You were NOT kidding!” OMG. The horror is real: the mood swings, the energy crashes, the boob sweats, the 20-30 lb weight gain. I’m looking in the mirror and going, “Who the hell is that?” They say people start to resemble their dogs. Sure enough, I am getting jowls like one of my pugs or bulldogs that render me unfit for selfies. So you won’t be seeing too much of me on Facebook or Instagram. Just look at my pugs and pretend it’s me.

No energy. No joke.   One trip to the grocery store and I’d be down for a nap.  And by a nap, I mean a nap that lasted the rest of the day. The only thing I had energy for was Pinterest, to the extent that friends wanted to do a Pintervention. “That’s the only way I know you’re still alive — I see you pinning online,” they said. It was easier to gather images of other people’s accomplishments, their crafts, their clothes, their art, their lives, than repair my own underwhelming existence. Luckily, I had a few freelance writing assignments that kept me going.

Finally, bored by my own inertia, I found a way out of zombie land by finding a good doctor and taking hormone therapy.   I know there are risks, but they’ve changed my life. Without hormones I might seriously be wandering the house listening to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” wondering when and how and why I killed everybody in the house.

 

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So, yep, on to reinvention.

My heroes are usually not other writers. Writers are too introspective and self-loathing. I like people of action, like astronauts, aviators and racecar drivers. I think what I like about them is that they are always striving, that they are constantly busy, they are always focused on goals, and they don’t let themselves stop moving long enough to get mired in torpor or self-pity.  In the depths of my depression this winter I read two astronaut autobiographies: Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins (1974) and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth by Colonel Chris Hadfield (2013).

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Collins, of course, was part of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and he, along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed on the moon with Apollo 11. Canadian Hadfield just transitioned out of his career as a Space Shuttle astronaut and a commander at the International Space Station. He’s an endearing media personality, particularly famous for singing and recording David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while on orbit at the International Space Station.

These astronauts come from two very different eras of spaceflight, but they share a great deal. Both guys are given to philosophical reflection, high scorers on the scale of astronaut-thoughtfulness. I was struck, however, that their trajectories were full of frustratingly small baby-steps. They sometimes took pilot assignments that seemed a universe away from joining NASA, career moves all over the world (that their families patiently endured) while they wondered if they’d ever go to space. Before Hadfield, there’d never been a Canadian astronaut, and he sometimes questioned if it were at all possible. But they kept moving, flying, persistently taking opportunities to learn new skills each and every day. Their careers serve as reminders to all of us, every day, to DO something towards being the person we want to be, to work towards the job we want to have.

I also had the happy experience of going to the Tico Airshow, something I’ve always wanted to do.  I was not just cheered up: I was ecstatic.  The sheer beauty of the planes and aerobatic feats was astounding,  and I thought, “Nobody here, whether they’re flying or watching, is just sitting at home feeling sorry for themselves.” I became the four-year-old girl whose dad took her to the airport to see planes taking off, who wriggled with wonder at the speed, the noise, the surge into the air.

So it is time to be active and take steps every day. Be the mother of my own reinvention. I think my next few blogs will be dedicated to people who relentlessly (re)invent themselves– either by choosing a life of boldness or by making a midlife career change that catapults them into the bliss of doing what they love.

And just for the record: no, I am not giving up my Pinterest addiction. And yes, I actually do admire writers, too. Here’s one from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

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April 8, 2014 · 12:32 am