Scenes from Silver Creek: My First Love
My first love and I were brought together through a combination of my father, Walter Cronkite, and Time magazine.
Sadly, like all the classic love affairs it ended in tragedy on January 27, 1967 when astronauts Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White were killed in a fire during a test of Apollo 1. You see, I was going to grow up and marry Roger Chaffee.
I didn’t care that he was already married and I was seven. All I knew was that he was handsome and he was an astronaut. That meant he was brave, strong, smart, and being married to him would mean I would get to ride in a parade. For some reason when I was seven my big ambition was to ride in a parade. Obviously I had no career in mind because parade riding is not, as far as I know, a legitimate occupation. I was apparently a dull child. Odd too, because when it came to crushes, all I seemed to fall for was older men. Cary Grant. Gregory Peck and, my real love, Roger Chaffee.
Our love affair started when my father brought home a magazine with big color photos of the Apollo astronauts inside. My family, like most American families in the 60s was space-mad. Anything related to NASA was major news. Dad was obsessed with the space program and insisted on watching every newscast he could, every documentary shown, and every interview with anyone even remotely related to the space race.
Our coffee table was covered with the smiling, handsome, white bread faces of John Glenn and Wally Schirra. And as an impressionable young girl, with a total absence of hot men in town, I developed a wicked crush on Roger Chaffee. I was also vaguely confused because for some reason I thought we were related. This did not, strangely enough, affect our engagement. But because there were photos of him around I got the idea he was some distant, attractive, clean-cut uncle. And I’m not sure why I fixated on him as opposed to one of the other astronauts, but he was definitely the one I picked out.
To this day I still think he was wonderfully handsome. But back then I also thought he magic. Space flight as a concept was mysterious to me. Not because I was too young to understand science. But because I was too young to get what all the fuss was about.
Growing up on a diet of quirky sci-fi flicks (my brothers were addicted) I thought space travel was a given. We’d already been to Mars, hadn’t we? And wasn’t space full of amphibious monsters and cheesy special effects? What was so exciting about the prospect of going to the moon? I’d thought we’d already been there, so I just didn’t get why everyone was so excited and why it was the topic of conversation all over the world. (OK, all over Silver Creek – but back then Silver Creek was the world.)
I thought maybe everyone was in love with Roger Chaffee and that’s why the world was talking. Wow, look at this handsome man who will soon marry one of our own, going to the moon for the 800th time and fighting amphibious monsters with his bare hands. What a guy.
I didn’t understand “dead” then. My only real experience with loss was with pets or people I was not going to grow up and marry. I’d recently buried Badger, an asthmatic hamster who got a cigar-box coffin and a teary, off-key rendition of My Country ‘Tis of Thee. (Don’t ask why.) But losing my fiancée was rough.
I remember my dad turning on the TV and Walter breaking the news. Dad was stunned. Mom said a prayer. Everyone was quiet except for me asking “what? What?” And not getting an answer. Eventually dad told me, gravely, that there had been an accident and some of the astronauts had died. I asked if Roger was OK. (I figured since we were going to get married it was OK to call him “Roger” and not Mr. Chaffee.) And dad told me he was dead.
Mom had to explain dead. “Like Badger,” she said. And I pictured my handsome hero in a huge cigar box with me singing My Country ‘Tis of Thee. I think I cried. I cried harder when I asked if I could go to the funeral and mom said no. I asked if he was going to be buried in Silver Creek and got another no.
The next day I took the photo of Roger I had stolen from one of my father’s copies of Life, rolled it up in an old paper towel roll, and buried it next to Badger.
I didn’t sing anything. But I did swear I’d never fall in love. And I never did.
Until Sean Connery.