Thursday, May 5, 2011

Some Random Thoughts About Mom and Freedom 7

I have mixed emotions today.

Today is the 16th anniversary of my mother's death in a flash flood. It is always a grim anniversary for me, and I am always glad when it is behind me.

But today is a milestone anniversary of another sort. May 5 will always be a grim day for me, but it is less grim than usual today because of that other anniversary, the milestone.

Half a century ago today, I guess you could say that America really entered the space race.

There had been other events in man's reach for the stars — slightly more than three weeks earlier, Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and America had been dabbling in unmanned spacecraft for awhile — but it was on this day that Alan Shepard (in the Freedom 7) became the first American in space. It was a short flight, about 15 minutes, but it was really the foundation for U.S. manned space travel in the 1960s and 1970s. The lessons that were learned in that short time made everything that followed possible.

(I'm not sure how the space agency arrived at the name. The number 7, I have been told, came from the fact that the capsule that was chosen was labeled #7 in a group of capsules — but seven, after all, is considered a lucky number. Coincidence?

(As for the Freedom part of the name, well, I haven't heard any stories about how it was chosen, but that's one of those American–sounding words, like liberty and justice and democracy.)

Nearly a decade later, Shepard was the commander of Apollo 14 and became the fifth man to walk on the moon. He would have been the seventh man to walk on the moon if the previous mission, Apollo 13, had been able to land. But it was prevented from doing so by a design defect.

My mother had Shepard's pioneering spirit, I think. She was a community activist when I was a child — and she was part of the successful local movement to switch our county from paper ballots to voting machines.

The people who live there now probably take it for granted that they can cast their votes on voting machines, but it was not always that way.

When my family moved to my home county in Arkansas, paper ballots were still being used there, and the people who held office held all the cards. They knew all sorts of ways to manipulate votes with those paper ballots, and I remember hearing my parents speak with their friends about their wish to break "the machine."

Thanks to the efforts of my mother and her friends and colleagues, the vice–like grip that the old–fashioned kind of machine had on my home county was broken forever.

I think Mom would be pleased to know that her achievement has lived on and thrived. Elections there appear to be more open today than at any time in her lifetime.

I think she would be proud of that — and, if she could have chosen the day that she died, she might well have chosen the anniversary of the day that the first American traveled in space. I don't know.

I do know, however, that I'm proud of Mom. Always will be. And I miss her very much.

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