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By Lindsay Casablanca
IT WAS THE LATE '50s, and Americans everywhere were convinced the Russians were coming to get them. The Russians had just launched Sputnik, the first satellite. They had beat the United States to the punch. Sputnik was up there somewhere, telegraphing an uncertain future.
My father was fascinated with the satellite, and its implications. He had been making comments about it ever since the launch. As I watched his morning shaving ritual the previous day, he mumbled, "Can't let it happen."
That morning, he had read in the paper that the satellite would pass overhead that night, and he wanted to get a look at the threatening orb himself. Ready to include me in his search, he grabbed the old Bushnell binoculars after dinner and called me out into the quiet, lavender-scented darkness of our back yard.
I was 8 or 9 at the time, and happy to accompany my father on one of his missions of discovery. Long before becoming an avid futurist, he had been a dedicated naturalist by avocation, and he had passed his interest in the natural world on to me through the many afternoon rambles we shared in the hills above our house.
One morning he picked the small, gray, furry leaves of a manzanita bush. When we got home he threw them into a pot of water, telling me that tea could be brewed from them. The bitterness of the concoction made me grimace, but I drank it down, wanting to please him. He taught me the names of the plants in the area -- Scotch Broom, Bull Thistle, and the one that always made me giggle when he said it in a deep voice, waving his arm in a formal introduction: Dalmatian Toadflax.
He knew the names of birds and other animals too -- Redheaded Woodpecker, Meadow Lark, Redtailed Hawk. Every time we ventured out along the dirt trails, he reminded me to watch out for rattlesnakes, which were plentiful in the dry brown hills. "Remember, if you see a snake, don't move. They don't see well, and they strike at what moves, so stay still," his litany went. I'd nod as we strolled along, sure that he could save me from anything.
Our walks had become more and more rare. That evening, I hoped I would learn something new about the sky, and also that it would be more like the earlier days, my father and me doing something together. He handed me the Bushnells, and went back into the house for his good binoculars, German-made Zeisses.
I was proud that he trusted me with the Bushnells, although they were so heavy I could barely hold them up. I scanned the heavens, my bony elbows tucked into my ribs to support the binoculars' weight, until he came back.
When he returned, he was muttering under his breath again, something about the world getting away from him. Realizing he was talking to himself, he stopped and pointed upward. Somewhere, he said, spinning around the earth, was a small bright object. It was our job to spot it among the numerous constellations we had been studying that year. I identified several of our favorite star groups -- the Pleides, Cassiopeia
the queen, and Ursa Minor -- but didn't see any satellite. It was my father who finally recognized the very dim but moving pulse.
It could barely be seen with the naked eye, but the binoculars brought
it into fuzzy relief. I didn't understand what the big deal was -- it didn't look
like much. Even Mars, viewed through binoculars, had more presence. But my father was very excited. He explained how a satellite worked, staying in orbit around the earth, how it had to be launched with a rocket. He rested his hand on top of my head in his old familiar way as he talked. I began to catch his enthusiasm as I felt the warmth from his hand, and I propped the binoculars up again to have another look at the distant thing my father said was so important. He added that Sputnik marked the start of a new period in history and that everything would change. He said the United States better get on the stick, or it would be left behind.
We stood companionably in the quiet yard, enjoying the smells of the evening. I eventually tired, still finding our original constellations more magnetic than the interloper, but my father's low voice kept me close, long past my bedtime. He stayed out even longer, fixated on the tiny blinking object.
Soon after that, my father came home one night with plans for a fallout shelter. I overheard him talking with my mother about it, telling her that a lot of people were building them, even some of our neighbors. It sounded like a neat idea to me -- a tunnel would be built in the back yard, and it would have sleeping bags and even canned food in it. There would be a door that closed, and flashlights, and a radio inside. The shelter would be a big fort, ready-made for games. I couldn't wait.
My mother was alarmed at the idea. She asked about the cost, and about making such a big decision so fast. And where would it go? Her voice had a tone in it I hadn't heard before -- tentative, concerned. My father insisted the shelter was necessary. We had to keep up with the times. He planned to build it himself, he said, and he was going to start that weekend whether she wanted him to or not. They argued long into the night. I crammed my pillow over my head to shut out the sound.
HE NEVER DID START the fallout shelter. But several weeks later, he told us he had enrolled in the local university's MBA program. He would be gone at night during the week, attending classes. He said the world was changing, and he felt he had fallen behind and had to catch up. It was another step he was convinced he had to take. This time he took it.
He spent less and less time at home. He went straight from work to class, and by the time he got in, my little brother and I were in bed. He'd come in and kiss me goodnight and then tiptoe out of my room. I struggled every night to stay awake, waiting for that kiss, inventing methods to keep myself from drifting off. By moonlight, I'd count the big flowers on my patterned wallpaper, or work on reciting my times tables for school. Sometimes I'd just pet the head of my beagle, Sam, and tell him stories while he slowly thumped his tail. But I often fell asleep too early and missed my father's nightly embrace, the only contact I had with him during the week. My brother, too young to stay up, never saw him.
My father's coursework continued for two years. By then, we had almost learned to ignore his absence. When he finally got his diploma, my mother and I baked him a cake to celebrate. We were looking forward to getting him back, to having the family together again. He sat down with us to eat, having his usual scoop of ice cream with the cake, but he seemed distracted, and didn't talk much. My mother looked worried, and pushed the cake around on her plate.
A week later my father flew to New York. When he returned, he packed his things and had them sent back east. He had accepted a job in New York City, with a company developing something new called a credit card. He was chasing the future he'd seen in Sputnik's launch, and he was doing it unencumbered by people who didn't understand his urgency to catch up -- he was going alone.
He left the Bushnells with me. Every time the paper said Sputnik was due to fly overhead, I went out into the yard. I became very good at finding it with the old binoculars. To my child's mind, it had turned into my father, ever circling above us, remote, harder to understand than the stars.
Lindsay Casablanca is a freelance writer and researcher. She is also an avid swimmer, plunging into San Francisco Bay on a regular basis with the Dolphin Club. She and her family live on Cesar Chavez Street, and have been Noe Valley residents for seven years.