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Under the Moon Shot

Every time the topic of the first moon landing arises, I go back — even if it’s only apollo 50 logo medmomentarily — to a place I’d rather forget. Where was I when the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon? In the little suburban subdivision ranch house of a friend, and I use that term very loosely.

On March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, of my senior year in high school, I was in our subdivision park with a neighbor. That was when I saw him — an adorable short, black-and-white haired hippie babe, flying a kite. I was immediately smitten.

As I soon learned, Jerry was also a player in an extremely amateur baseball “league” of hippie kids. We played in the park a couple times a week. As hippie kids weren’t known for any sports prowess, we were pretty terrible. I was possibly one of the worst — so bad that my hitting ability merited a couple of digs in notes in my senior yearbook. The rules varied from the norm, in that girls could keep swinging until we hit something. Or until we abdicated in a plea for mercy. In addition to being truly “no-batter, no-batter,” I was no batter2 1969the type of fielder who covered her head and yelled “somebody get it!” when a ball came toward her in the outfield.

The baseball was bad, but the babes were bountiful. There were a couple dozen long-haired guys wearing bell-bottoms, jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts; girls with long straggly or short pixie-cut hair, wearing the same.

I found out that Jerry hung out with a group of kids who lived near him in another section of our huge subdivision, close to the park. Some of them went to my school, most of them a year or more behind me. They would hang out in the park together and meet in the basement of their ringleader, a junior named Margie. It was all peace and love, long hair and music — or so it seemed when I started tagging along with them. I remember one evening when several of us walked with linked arms in the middle of Margie’s street singing “Get Together” (Youngbloods version). “Everybody get together, gotta love one another right now.”

Jerry was a photographer and played guitar a little. He liked Linda Ronstadt, and so did I. And he was short, like me. His curly dark hair was salted with prematurely white strands. He was 16, soon to be 17 when we met, and I had just turned 18. What’s not to like?

So after school was out in early June and I was a newly minted graduate, I found myself hanging out with this clique more, walking the four and a half blocks over to Margie’s, where she would hold court in her basement rec room. The faithful included Jerry, a guy named Ken and his girlfriend and sometimes his younger brother Tony, a younger girl from next door named Barb and sometimes a kid named Johnnie and his friend Jimmy, and other assorted players.

Some days, the neighbor Barb would bring her stereo system and we played vinyl records. One day, Barb expended a great deal of energy adjusting the balance. When she finally got it to her satisfaction, she sat down and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “Wow, that’s hard work.” In a barely disguised aside, Margie said to me with a derisive laugh, “It’s a crappy stereo.”

One of the things Margie found entertaining was pretending some of us were married to each other. She got to pick the match-ups. I was assigned Tony, who promptly climbed on top of me on the couch. Don’t worry, nothing happened, but I found it creepy then and even more so now. On a previous evening in the park, one of these characters, the aforementioned Johnnie, planted on me my first kiss, which didn’t bother me because I was long overdue — until it became obvious that he had done it either on a dare or on orders from, well, someone.

Periodically, Margie would have private “talks” with various clique members in the laundry room. She was like a mother hen, advising her brood about personal issues. One day she decided to have a talk with me. I don’t remember much about the talk or her ostensible intention, except for one line: “But Jerry doesn’t like you.” Although I don’t recall my immediate response — if any — I can be sure I didn’t provide the desired reaction. By 18, I was already an expert at a poker face. I would not have cried or looked sad or upset. But I sure remember that statement 50 years later. Oddly enough, decades later a boss used almost the same line on me in trying to get me to write up a regular report of my activities for an elected board that governed our work: “They just don’t like you.” Same reaction from me, but that time, I started planning my exit from that job.

It had occurred to me that maybe Margie was a rival for Jerry’s affections. But I came to believe that she was just mean and controlling.

“But Jerry doesn’t like you.”

One day in Margie’s underground lair, I was sitting on the couch with my right hand on the armrest. Margie was sitting perpendicular to me on her upholstered throne. She held a cigarette in her hand and slowly drew the lit end closer and closer to the back of my hand. I didn’t think she’d really burn me, so I didn’t move my hand. I maintained my unruffled demeanor. But Jerry must have suspected she would do it, and he snatched her hand away at the last minute. Which made me like him even more, thereby ensuring that I would stick around and continue to endure such mistreatment. But of course, I wasn’t really cognizant of that thought process at the time.

But I was not blind to what was going on. I was well used to being ignored and ridiculed, most recently by her. For example, one day in the middle of a discussion, I made a rare but pertinent comment. “She doesn’t say much,” Margie said. “But when she does, it’s really stupid.”

Even then, I knew that such bullies like to get a reaction. Getting upset or angry gives them a payoff, and for God’s sake, don’t ever let them see you cry. So I didn’t allow myself to show any reaction to Margie’s insults and actions. And I developed a now longstanding habit of making quick, no-frills exits. No extended explanations, good-byes or hugs. When I was ready to leave, I just got up and said something like “See ya,” or “I’m off,” and left. One day, I stood up and left Margie’s basement, saying nothing. As I walked up the steps, out of sight but not out of earshot, I heard Ken say loudly, “Is she leaving? Good.”

“She doesn’t say much. But when she does, it’s really stupid.”

Still, that wasn’t enough to stop me from the lunacy of going there. After all, Ken wasn’t the one I was going to see. Some six years later, I learned that he died, a rumored suicide. The adult me now wonders how long he had been engulfed in the dark feelings that led him to take his young life, leaving two small children behind.

So, it was against this backdrop that I happened to be in Margie’s basement in the Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. Flag on the Moonmid-afternoon of Sunday, July 20 that summer. Her mother called us upstairs to watch the grainy live video of American astronauts landing on the moon. Such a momentous and memorable occasion, viewed from such a miserable place best forgotten.

One summer evening that August after the astronauts had come down to Earth, the assembled cliquesters and I were gathered on Margie’s front lawn, which was a gentle hill. Someone was playing an acoustic guitar. At some point, Jerry and Ken were lying next to each other on the lawn below me. They began nuzzling. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Eventually, I stood and left without a word. As I walked up the sidewalk toward the corner, I hoped someone would call me back, say good-bye or something. But, of course, no one did. I didn’t look back, even after I rounded the corner from where I could have seen them just by turning my head to the right.

That was the last time I entered Margie’s realm, although I didn’t make that decision on the spot. The next time I thought of calling her, as per protocol, to see if she was holding court, I couldn’t. I picked up the phone in my own basement to dial, the usual nervousness rising within my chest, then I pressed down the “hook” button on the old basic black desk phone. I tried a couple more times, even dialing part of the number before depressing the button. At last, I hung up the phone for good. I was never tempted to go there again — and my family’s long-impending move 30 miles away occurred a few weeks later.

The next — and last — time I saw Margie was that September at one of a series of outdoor concerts called Kaleidoscope — a Woodstock-like affair featuring several local bands. I was sitting on the ground at Kaleidoscope with some friends — some REAL friends who enjoyed going to see live music with me. I noticed that Margie was sitting nearby. We looked at each other, but I said nothing. She said, “Still not my friend?” I believe I said something like “that’s the way you want it” or “That’s your choice.”

I did encounter Jerry again several times a couple years later. By that time I had a boyfriend, who was in a band. Someone associated with the band knew Jerry, who came to some of our parties. He brought a girlfriend, who happened to be someone who had worked briefly with me at a large government facility the year after I graduated. There, she beat me out for the affections of an attractive young lieutenant. And here she was again, with Jerry, for whom I was still carrying a torch. That torch continued to burn, unrequited, for a total of five or six years, against all reason. Linda Ronstadt’s song, “Long Long Time,” became my anthem, because it so perfectly reflected my nonrelationship with Jerry. He was my moon shot. Mission unaccomplished.

I’ve never told anyone about the Clique — never even written about it. It’s not like it should be a deep dark secret or that something truly terrible happened to me. No crimes were committed, and no one got hurt, physically anyway. But it left a mark on my psyche, to be sure.

I’ve thought about it occasionally over the years, but it doesn’t haunt me. Perhaps that’s because I got some kind of “closure” with my curt retort to Margie at Kaleidoscope. Or maybe because I immediately ramped up my activities with other, more accepting, friends.

I’m embarrassed that I tolerated this rude treatment — which would probably be called “bullying” today — as long as I did, a little less than 6 months from first sighting of that kite-flying babe until my move out of the neighborhood.

This was 50 years ago. That kind of behavior is still happening now — with more intensity, it seems — and probably went on 50 years before the moon landing. I believe insecure kids (and adults) will always find an “Other” to taunt, even when the group is homogenous. We were all the same race, in the same socioeconomic group, living in the same middle-class subdivision created by the Greatest Generation after they returned from World War II, building homes and families. Heck, we were all ’60s hippie kids preaching peace and love.

I also encountered it in my Catholic elementary school. All of us were the same race and religion, wore the same uniform. Still, certain kids found an “Other” — people they perceived as lesser, worthy of harassment and ridicule.

How did I achieve “Other” status? By being a shy, short, skinny, freckly and generally unattractive wallflower. That’s all it takes, even today.

But my experience with the Clique instilled in me a conviction that I wouldn’t want to be a member of any group that spurned me. I developed a strong bent toward individuality and independence. And I eventually mastered the skill of knowing when to abandon a doomed moon shot and the strength to walk away.

— Eileen P. Duggan

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NASA images are available for use by the public at www.nasa.gov.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. james headrick permalink
    October 8, 2019 7:56 pm

    I have been thinking about you, yes a quiet hippie chick from Ferguson, I remember you. I think we should have been life long friends. I feel like I was in that basement with you. Bullies, bullied……been there done that. Your eyes are deep, wise, and warm.

  2. July 18, 2019 3:23 pm

    Loved this Eileen! My memory of that day was also at somebody else’s home, but can only remember the position of the TV, not the friend!

  3. July 18, 2019 1:11 pm

    Wow, this is powerful writing! It swept me immediately back to the late 60s and made me feel I was there in that queen bee’s basement rec room. So sad that kind of excluding behavior went on then and continues now. I’d love to read a YA novel with the protagonist starting here and moving toward confidence in her own individuality – a story as relevant today as in the past.

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