On the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing — My Family’s Connection

Screen Shot 2019-07-20 at 10.51.15 AM
Grumman Aircraft Plant 5 Christmas Party. Food service workers, their boss, Tommy Thompson, secretaries, and there are some LEM workers in this picture. My grandmother, Irene, is in the center in the front row.

“You know you’re from Levittown if…”

  • You bought one of those mirrored keychains or picture frames at the Tri-County Flea Market when you were 16.
  • Your parents let you play down the block, without worry, until the street lights came on, and the block was named after a bird or a flower or maybe started with the letter ‘S.’
  • You had a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle employed at Grumman — maybe even one who worked on the Eagle, the lunar module that made history on the Apollo 11 flight that landed men on the moon for the first time on July 20, 1969.

My grandmother, Irene Sobey Gaden, worked at Grumman. She wasn’t an engineer or construction foreman or mathematician. She worked in the cafeteria there, first as a secretary, then later in the cafeteria itself, and eventually became one of the food service managers. For 35 years, beginning in 1958, she helped feed the Grumman workers every day. There were about 25,000 employees in total, according to Newsday, with about 9,000 working on the lunar module.

In a way, you could say my grandmother helped feed the Eagle.

“I remember them being very excited about the whole thing,” my Aunt Lynne recalled earlier today, the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. She was 17 years old when the Eagle landed. Her mother brought home commemorative patches, but Aunt Lynne can’t recall what happened to them.

My mother, Jan, was 15 when American astronauts took their first steps on the moon thanks to Grumman’s L.E.M. She has amassed quite a collection of moon memorabilia, but that’s not really the point.

Mom recalled how, as little girls, “Whenever we asked what our mother did there, she told us her job was to paint the signature ‘Grumman ball’ on top of the Plant 2 building.”

I saw that iconic blue ball nearly every day of my youth. True, it was in Bethpage, but it might as well be another “you know you’re from Levittown if…” kind of mile-marker.

Mom also remembered how her mother’s job at Grumman sustained their family. Yes, their stepfather was a construction manager there for a time, but he was an alcoholic who never held a job for very long, and my grandmother eventually divorced him.

“She was a single mom with two daughters in the early ’60s, forced to get a job close to home,” Mom said.

RELATED READING: Newsday‘s complete tribute to the Apollo 11 LEM landing

I just spent the last 20 minutes searching online to see if any former Grumman cafeteria workers had shared their stories publicly. But when you search for terms like “Grumman cafeteria workers” or even “Grumman custodians” and “Apollo 11,” nothing really useful turns up. I felt dismayed at the lack of results.

Which is why it’s so important that we document our families’ histories. Behind the big events, like the Apollo 11 moon landing, are lots of people who get a lot of the credit, and deservedly so. But they received support behind the scenes, too, and I want to make sure that gets recognized.

Hearts on Fireflies

Photo by Mike Lewinski used under Creative Commons license – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ikewinski/19220853390

The earth gave off sparks last night, or rather, so it seemed, as fireflies dotted the woods with fierce, flashing luminescence under the twilight sky.

We were sitting in the car, lights off, windows rolled up, on the side of a rural road that J doesn’t want me to name out of fear the tourists will come seeking lightning bugs and ruin everything. June means fireflies, but where we live, it also means tourists.

In that moment, though, the fireflies were ours and ours alone and we barely breathed, as if they could hear us and would scatter if they knew we were watching.

I was reminded of a song I love by the band Owl City — a song that J doesn’t like. I refrained from humming it. Instead the lightning bug show was set to a simple soundtrack of wind, chirping crickets and ambient nighttime noise.

I scarcely knew where to look. There were hundreds of them! Every new moment out-dazzled the last one. A cluster of glowing green here, a patch of sparkling lights there. The mating dance was all around us, and it inspired us.

Not to mate, of course. We were sitting in a Prius on a public roadway in Southampton, after all.

But we kissed. And when we pulled away from each other for a moment, we looked at each other with the fiery intensity of lovers who knew exactly why they were kissing, and then we kissed some more. J’s eyes twinkled. The sky was all-the-way dark. It was time to go home.


A ★★★★★ Review of “A Magnet to a Flame”

“A Magnet to a Flame” by Shawn Patrick Cooke.

Shawn Patrick Cooke’s collection “A Magnet to a Flame,” consisting of 28 short stories and three poems, is well deserving of five stars for its exciting journeys, unusual narratives, and unexpected turns. Every story is unique — from magical realism to fantasy and literary short fiction all of a very fine caliber.

Among the standout shorts are “Bronntanas and Cailin,” a fairytale love story with an end that begs a sequel. “Cora and the Sea” emboldens a sea captain’s wife to take control of her own fate. “Ferian Fetlock Cures a Horse” is a take on the classic snake-oil-man story, while “Illuminated” is a suspenseful page-turner — a journey of enlightenment that unfolds masterfully.

In short, readers will want more, but if “A Magnet to a Flame” is any indication, there’s no shortage of stories to come from Cooke’s prolific imagination.

“A Magnet to a Flame” retails for $9.99 here.

Where the Wished-Away Goes

Penn Station, NYC, 2007. Angelo DeSantis from Berkeley, US via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, you read that correctly. I didn’t say “washed-away,” I said “wished-away.” Where something goes when it’s washed away is fairly simple; it’ll ultimately wind up in the oceans or in the water we drink, so be careful what you’re rinsing or flushing or washing. You also know by now, having heard the standard fairytales and watched the requisite comedies on television or in the movie theater, that you should also be careful when wishing.

Like the oceans and the water we drink, there’s a place where the wished-away goes.

It’s a magical place you can only get to if you first close your eyes, put on a pair of sparkly red shoes, then open your eyes and put the shoes on the correct feet; then, while keeping your eyes on the second star from right in the night sky, you run straight through until morning. You’ll need to acquire some fairy dust and sing a couple of songs along the way… okay, I’m kidding. You can find it, though.

But it’s not really that magical a place when you consider what dangers await where the wished-away went after being wished away.

You’ll encounter the chicken pox and all sorts of afflictions, most likely even cancers and broken bones. You’ll find creepy ex-lovers and criminals alike; overdue tax bills and overbearing mothers-in-law; broken appliances and flat sodas. Everyone has annoying habits and all of the groceries in every refrigerator are long-expired.

Why would anyone want to find what others have wished away?

Detectives hunting for clues to crack cases will undoubtedly find it interesting, as will astute psychotherapists conducting therapeutic activities. But writers, who do a bit of both, might find the most valuable tidbits among the literal and figurative rubbish that others have wished away.

To get there — for real this time — simply go to the loudest, most public place you can find. I like to go to the waiting room of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station.

Then you close your eyes and just listen, and you’re probably already there, if not close. Take note of the intimacy still present in public places.

“I wish you’d stop doing that.”

“I wish I didn’t feel like shit.”

“I wish my boyfriend wasn’t such an asshole.”

“I wish Nana wasn’t so sick.”

Welcome to the land of the wished-away.

Drink it up.

Write it down.

From the Archives: “Things I Lost, Found and Learned in the Move”

Actual boxes from my spring 2015 move.

A good writer not only looks forward to improve her writing skills she should also pause to look back at the past to see the place she came from. This post was originally published via j9swrites.com in April of 2015.

My rather regrettable absence online over the last few weeks can be attributed to a legitimate life change: Relocation to a different state and starting a new job.

Moving back to New York’s Long Island is a true homecoming for me. In October of 2013, I’d left my home and found my passion: Writing, as a news reporter, about K-12 and higher education issues. But I also found my former life calling me back home, and in March of 2015, I listened.

My return to New York would mark the fifth time in the last six years that I’ve changed residences. I learned a thing or two from each move, and so they became progressively easier to do — even when crossing state lines.

But this particular move was not easy. The few days I was in transition happened to span a couple of heavy downpours in Virginia, the state I was leaving, as well as a wet snowfall in New York. The trailer in which my belongings were being stored leaked badly, destroying much of its contents.

Boxes of photographs would have to be thrown out. Books, too. Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” graphic novel series and a hardbound edition of “Falling Hard: 100 Love Poems by Teenagers,” a kick-ass birthday gift last year, were among the casualties. A brand-new bookcase was destroyed, as well as a whole bunch of craft supplies.

But not all was lost. One particular possession — something I thought I had lost nearly five years ago — was actually found along the way. The moving company employee, who seemed genuinely apologetic, helped me sort through the mess of soaked cardboard and paper. At one point, he bent down and picked up a scrapbook.

It’s a scrapbook I hadn’t seen since August of 2010, when a freshly minted ex-boyfriend decided he didn’t want to give me back my stuff that was at his house. I thought this scrapbook — the first I’d ever made, containing irreplaceable pictures from family vacations I took as a child — was among those belongings. I’d lamented its loss and tried to move past it. Yet thinking about that lost scrapbook stung fresh no matter how much time had passed.

And yet, here it was. Dripping wet. What a misfortune, I thought, to unexpectedly find something so valuable only to lose it once again.

Somehow, though, most of the scrapbook was salvageable. The water that saturated the covers and spine had miraculously spared the interior pages, and those are the ones that really count. The cheerful paper layouts were fine once they were transplanted into a new scrapbook.

Whatever was lost, it was worth it to regain a cherished part of my past that I thought was gone forever.

What I learned from this experience is simple — not every bad thing that happens has to be completely tragic. It probably could have been worse. There might be some kind of lesson, something to be gained in the process. Have patience and what you need just might float to the surface after the rain stops falling.

Bursting at the Seams with Words

Me during the Women’s March in January 2017.

My inner social justice warrior and my outer objective community journalist are engaged in a serious but silent dialogue with each other.

The warrior, enraged by the state of political and social affairs in this nation, privately rails, frets, cries, stresses, hopes, dreams and donates to various organizations and human rights efforts. My instinct is to jump in line alongside the protestors with my own handmade sign, and to pen letters and columns and essays as an advocate of certain causes.

I am that soldier and yet I stay largely silent in the larger realm of public debate. That’s because I’m a journalist for a newspaper in a small community, and my carefully maintained political, cultural and social objectivity is an asset to my ability to perform my job properly. Connections are very important here, and I can’t put that objectivity on the line in a place where impressions are so important.

Here’s how seriously I take this. I’m not registered in a particular political party — meaning I can’t vote in primary elections. Because I often cover elections, if ever I were to be accused of bias, having a party affiliation would not work in my favor. One of the most risky things I’ve ever done, in my opinion, was wear a pink pussy hat around town.

Someone photographed me wearing a rainbow heart sticker on my face in front of the Newseum during the first Women’s March on Washington in January 2017. Supporting LGBTQ rights and breaking the mental health stigma are the two primary issues that I have some experience publicly speaking out on, but even then, the few times I have opened my mouth to share an opinion in a forum such as social media have just served to reinforce my dilemma.

Where do I draw the line? Where does the rest of me fit in? I feel like I’m a mutant with superpowers that I can’t use in public. I sit and listen in silence to everything happening around me. The need to express myself is burning toward the surface.

A Fond Childhood Food Memory

So much yum. Image via Pixabay

They were sweet like candy, but they weren’t candy, and I wasn’t old enough to understand why or how that was possible. At about five years old, I remember my first taste of homegrown cherry tomatoes, still warm from ripening in the sun and not even washed yet, had me hooked. There was something about the way their smooth skin yielded to juicy, fleshy insides that was so satisfying. Thirty-one years later, cherry tomatoes remain my favorite snack.

These particular babies, though, were “B.A.D. tomatoes.” “B.A.D.” stood for “Betty, Al, and Dawn.” The ancient Betty and Al, and their middle-aged daughter, Dawn, were among the last remaining farmers in our town, and these mouth-watering gems were their bread-and-butter. My father used them, among other treats, to attempt to help me forget the recent divorce. It was also my father who coined the term “B.A.D. tomatoes” and taught me the concept of a pneumonic device. Imagine a five-year-old who could pronounce “pneumonic device,” tell you what it meant, and also give you a proper example of one.

Maybe most girls my age like a chocolate-flavored midnight snack, or maybe something carb-o-licious, like leftover pizza. Give me a pint of farmstand cherry tomatoes, though, any time of day or night.

Happily Ever After, Part Two

Happily Ever After, Part Two
These are the two succulents I saved from the wedding bouquet.

Not every girl gets the chance to marry her husband twice. I did. The first time was an intimate town hall affair, surrounded by a few of our closest family members, with dinner afterwards at a local tavern. The second time was an all-out party: an eager DJ spinning for a hundred-plus guests, filet mignon, chocolate fountain, family I hadn’t seen in forever, friends who shook my husband’s hand for the first time.

Two lovers. Two weddings. Fitting for a pair that fate had to introduce twice in order to spark a flame.

We’ve been slowly coming down off the high of wedding No. 2. Each day we come to realize, more and more, just how lucky and blessed we are. We’re surrounded by this circle of love from family and friends that’s hard to articulate.

It inspires us. It nourishes us. Best of all, it teaches us.

The year that elapsed between weddings was a helluva year. I struggled to control my bipolar disorder, then underwent knee surgery. Some other stuff happened, but this isn’t the forum to air any more specifics. All I’ll say is that it was a difficult, but important, first year for us.

It’s relevant right now because of the succulents.

Today, I decided to discard my bridal bouquet. Having done most of the preliminary drying of the flowers and leaves, I picked out what I intended to press and made the necessary arrangements, calling upon my copy of “A Wrinkle in Time” to do the rest of the work. But before I threw out the remainder of the dead flowers, something in the bouquet caught my eye: Two little succulents, leaves still firm and flush with moisture, stood in stark contrast to the dead carcasses of white roses and peonies. There had been four succulents in all, but the others had apparently given up.

I rescued the two remaining succulents, tossed the bouquet (again), and unwrapped the floral tape and wire from their bases.

They were pretty worn out. Somewhat beat-up but beautiful still, green with purplish edges, cool to the touch. They quivered in my hand. One had a major limb that was barely hanging on. It reminded me of me. Actually, the pair reminded me of us, a pair plucked from the wreckage by some deus ex machina, two life forms that would see a new day, and which would never have to be alone again.

Beat-up but beautiful still.

I put the two succulents in a dish with a bit of water. Will figure out next steps tomorrow. Right now I have about 30 more wedding ‘thank you’ notes to write. “We are so grateful.” “We hope to see you soon.” “Thanks for sharing in our special day.” We sign our names and mean every word.

Night Falls Upon the Shoebox

dark blue sky, clear sky, dusk, stars, clouds, trees, night
Image via pixnio.com

The walls are so thin they are practically made of cardboard, but I shouldn’t have expected anything less from an apartment we have nicknamed “The Shoebox.”

“When do you think the crickets will quiet down for the season?” J asks as we swaddle ourselves in blankets against the chill.

Though they babbled right outside our windows, I’ll take the crickets any day over our across-the-street neighbors, who, fortunately for us, had recently put their house on the market.

“Probably sooner than the meth house will get sold,” I reply.

Tonight, the bugs are drowned out by bass beats coming from a car stereo across the street. We can hear the ten o’clock news blaring through the wall separating our 300-square-foot studio apartment from the adjacent bedroom belonging to our hard-of-hearing landlord. The evening train toot-toots its horn as it approaches the station in Amagansett about a mile and a half from our place. Even the early autumn southerly wind shaking the trees seems determined to keep us awake.

This is a typical night inside — and outside — the Shoebox. The apartment earned this nickname not just for its oppressive smallness but also for the fact that I have a lot of shoes. For J and I, a couple of early morning risers, the nighttime noise issue is rather tragic.

It has been growing tougher and tougher to exist in the Shoebox as a pair, and I’m not sure what to do about it.

Tonight, the noise gets to us so much that sleep wasn’t going to be possible just yet, so J and I do the only thing we could think of doing.

We make our own noise. It is quiet in comparison to the din outside, but we find our intimate noise is all we can hear. Breath in each other’s ears. Blankets rustling around us. A bit of naughty talk, spoken low and punctuated by moans ranging from soft to surprised to determined to devious. And a climax that hits a chord so beautiful it could be its own song.

We collapse next to each other, kiss one more time, whisper goodnight, and promptly pass out.

We’ll never know exactly how long the cacophony outside went on for that night, but it is bound to repeat itself soon.

From the Archives: “Good or Bad, if You’ve Left Some Kind of Impression on Me…”

Taylor Swift in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Eva Rinaldi Photography via Wikimedia Commons.
Taylor Swift in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Eva Rinaldi Photography via Wikimedia Commons.

A good writer not only looks forward to improve her writing skills — she should also pause to look back at the past to see the place she came from. This post was originally published via j9swrites.com in February of 2015.

…then chances are, I’m going to write about you.

Just a fair warning, it comes with being involved somehow in the life of a writer. I even own a coffee mug that says so. But there are some guidelines I go by.

1. No boyfriend, no best friend, no frenemy is safe, but a lot of times it’s going to be a positive literary reference.  If you’ve lifted me up, or if you’ve done the same for someone else, then I respect you. This is one way of showing it. I appreciate you and I want others to appreciate you, too. Writing about a loved one is a tribute paid to someone whose actions or interactions have somehow affected me in a good way.

2. However, if they have not, I’m not going to mention you by name. This is an important rule of the game. Especially if you’re not a public figure, writing about something you’ve said or done in a negative way without a legit reason or justification, or asserting something terrible has happened without proof, is generally called slander. Living a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle – as, you can imagine, many writers do – doesn’t exactly lend itself to paying lawyer fees, so I’m really careful about this.

3. Ex boyfriends and ex girlfriends are an easy target. We’re no longer together, but I still remember the way everything went down. Taylor Swift is really good at this, and if it can help vault her career, then it must have the potential to have the same effect on mine, right? Lifehack.org quotes T-Swift as saying, “And if you’re horrible to me I’m going to write a song about you and you are not going to like it.” But again, refer to Rule #2. You’ll probably be anonymous or have a different name in my story.

4. Beyond Taylor, I’m clearly not the only one doing this. I speak from experience. I’ve been the subject of at least two indie rock songs and I’ve been a couple of lines in a stand-up comedy bit. In an article full of advice from real-life artists sharing their inspiration for their work, playwright Lucy Prebble told The Guardian, “It’s OK to use friends and lovers in your work. They are curiously flattered.”

As the old Head & Shoulders shampoo commercial saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” So I leave the decision up to you: What am I going to write about you?