Taking a Long Shot ...
A birthday reminiscence and goodbye to Astronaut Alan Shepard
by Kent Mountford
It was a bad year for me along New Jersey's seacoast. I had writer's block in Part IV of Closed Sea, the book I'd been working on for years and thought I'd never finish. I'd lost my job, and my girlfriend had broken up with me. Capt. Chick Leeds, the favored uncle who'd taught me about sailing, had died suddenly.
Those were the days of compulsory military service and on January 4, I'd received notice I'd soon be selected for a pre-induction physical. War had broken out in Laos, and the threat of a nuclear conflagration was very real.
I was sworn in as a U.S. Army recruit on March 14 but would not report for active duty until mid-May, so what else to do but work on my sailboat and get her in the water? The boatyard was half a hundred miles from home, but for decades my grandparents had owned a little summer cottage on the ocean beach. It was vacant this time of year and just a hundred yards from the surf.
On April Fool's day, my black-and-tan hound dog and I moved in. Between bottom scraping and the frustration of spring sea fog's interference with my varnish and painting the hull, I brooded upon my fate in this darkest time of the Cold War.
When my sloop, Surge, was launched she was often kept in her slip by bad weather and the threat of snow, but at the cottage, dog and I sat in front of the fireplace and toasted our toes with driftwood from the stormy Atlantic. Grandfather's mantle clock ticked reliably, and the musty old deer head looked down on us benevolently. I noticed, hiking to gather firewood on the beach at night, that the sand, where many waves had seeped into the beach, would glow when scuffed, from luminescent plankton species strained out of the water. I was fascinated.
Money was tight for me as a member of Smilin' Jack Kennedy's Great Army of the Unemployed, but I risked the disturbing sum of $7.49 -- about the week's groceries -- and bought a cheap kid's microscope. Using a plankton net improvised from one of my mom's discarded nylon stockings and a piece of coat hanger, I strained water from that cold dark ocean. There opened before me that uncertain spring a fascinating microscopic world of plankton, and that small investment defined my whole future in marine science.
Spring eventually arrived with the cold sea wind tempered by sun and the warming of nearby Barnegat Bay. My tan improved along with my knowledge of marine species. A pregnant male seahorse washed ashore, and his pouch revealed the thousands of eggs that would have been tiny aquatic steeds had they lived to hatch. Other specimens, more fortunate in the surf, lived for weeks in my little aquarium. Fossils half a billion years old were found in tumbled stones at the tide-line, ploughed down after the great Pleistocene glacier that formed New Jersey's terminal moraine. I found the skull of a merganser or shelldrake and was, by then, well over 150 pages into the final draft of my book.
I sailed Surge with my cousin Don as crew. The logbook speaks: "Ah, but it was a wild and exhilarating run Even with reefed main we had a wild time holding her, bellowing our approval "
At the start of May, these United States scheduled to launch a man into space. Earlier that spring, six missile launches had failed at Cape Canaveral. Now I was transfixed to my little portable radio, sitting in front of the old brick fireplace, horrified that NBC had such sensationalized coverage of what could have been a horrible disaster: "Navy Commander Alan Shepard, at 1034 hours blasted off for 315 miles in a sub-orbital space trajectory making him the first American to enter that realm and the highest man yet alive "
I followed the man-shoot to well past recovery. It was a fabulous, overwhelming success, everything went off without a hitch and Shep bounding from the helicopter in fine shape when he returned.
I ended the day very proud of my country. Nine days later, I went on active duty.
I received my Ph.D. just a decade later, and now a third of a century into my career, I own the old beach cottage, and the mantle clock is still ticking as I write this. My book, lain three decades fallow, is scheduled for publication next year.
I will always be thankful to Alan Shepard for the inspiration given so many of us.
Dr. Kent Mountford, a marine ecologist, writes from Osborn Cove on St. Leonard Creek.
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Volume VI Number 30
July 30 - August 5, 1998
New Bay Times
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