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Big Chuck

April 11, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: 'Mercury Seven' took me to infinity ... and beyond

Almost exactly 52 years ago today, April 9, 1959, seven men were ushered into a room filled with TV cameras and introduced to a waiting world. I was 11 years old. These guys became my boyhood heroes.

They were the "Mercury Seven," America's first astronauts. I had been reading about them in school, and we all were wide-eyed at the prospects of these modern-day Buck Rogerses hurtling themselves into space, into the black beyond and maybe, dare we say it, onto the face of the moon. I thought these men would be giants, like the classic pioneers found in the pages of my history books.

Instead, out shuffled seven sheepish guys who looked very much like, well, my dad. They wore suits and ties and smiled for the camera. The next week their photo was on the front page of LIFE magazine. I tore the cover off the magazine and thumbtacked it to my bedroom wall.

Like my Dad, none of them had much hair. Gus Grissom had a flattop haircut. They all wore business suits that looked like they came out of the wardrobe department for the TV show "Mad Men."

Navy blue was the color of the day. Except for John Glenn, decked out in his tan suit coat. They wore skinny neckties. Except for Glenn, who sported a rakish bow tie. All were grinning. All were young. It seems like a million years ago.

My friends and I knew their names, their missions and their backgrounds. Our hearts pumped feverishly as we watched John Glenn catapult into the heavens aboard his Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962. Mission control said, "Godspeed, John Glenn," and we all prayed. When he returned to terra firma, the first American to orbit the Earth, he was forever a hero. My hero. My real-life Buzz Lightyear.

Over the years, America's space program has brought our country many thrills, chills and spills. Each newspaper headline blaring another milestone in space found its way tacked up to my now-crowded bedroom wall. No paper went up, however, to remember Feb. 21, 1967, when "Gus" Grissom, the one with the flattop, was killed in a capsule fire along with two others. It was too sad.

And of course, all of my boyhood dreams culminated on July 20, 1969, with man's historic landing on the moon. Five hundred million people watched it on TV. I watched it with my family at our home in Sidney.

My very old grandfather, "Pop" Cody, watched it with us, too. In 1927, he had been glued to his radio in Brooklyn listening Charles Lindbergh take off over the Atlantic. "Lucky Lindy" was my grandfather's generation's Buzz Lightyear. Pop watched wide-eyed at this "one small step for man."

After the lunar landing, my interest in the space program began to wane. Life crowded it out of my sight. Launches went unnoticed, names became unfamiliar. Space events became too scientific. I just lost interest.

Our area has a few touchstones to the space program, however. Eileen Collins, from Elmira, was the first female commander of a space shuttle. And poor Gregory Jarvis. Once the "Boy Wonder of Mohawk, N.Y.," he was killed when his Space Shuttle Challenger blew up on Jan. 28, 1986. That too was a headline that never made it up onto my bedroom wall.

And now, today, the space program seems like an afterthought. When was the last launch? Who is up in space right now? What is the name of our program? I haven't got a clue. Space shuttles, space walks, international space stations. Good efforts, great science, but for me, not something I take note of anymore.

But before I close my own personal door on the space program, let me mention Ron Garan Jr. Ron came from Yonkers to Oneonta for college. He spent four years here before graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree at SUNY Oneonta in 1982. Recently he came back to be awarded an honorary degree and to give the commencement address.

Col. Ron Garan, now an astronaut, soared into space earlier this month. Destination: The International Space Station for a six-month stay.

So, although I have "been away for a while," this one might just do the trick. An American astronaut with longtime Oneonta roots, rocketing off aboard a Soyuz spacecraft with two Russian colleagues, firing out of a cool sounding place called the Baikonur Cosmodome in remote Kazakhstan?

Yeah, that sounds interesting!

Oh, and "Godspeed, Ron Garan."

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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