Sunday, December 8th, 2013

It’s possible that the seven wives of the first American astronauts may have been boring people. I haven’t met any of them. It seems unlikely, though. What I’ve read about them (up until now) suggests that they were at least as interesting as most people. And being military wives, they’d traveled back and forth across the United States and the world. They were married to fighter pilots who became test pilots before they were selected to be the first American astronauts. And finally, they were thrust into the public eye all but against their will to have virtually every molecule of their beings scrutinized.

So I doubt they were boring. They must’ve had at least a few memories worth putting to paper. And Lily Koppel’s book about them, The Astronaut Wives Club, hints at some of those memories, but the way Koppel spins them out, they bump and clunk up over odd, seemingly random non sequiturs. Here’s how she introduces Marge Slayton:

Marge Slayton welcomed the press boys with her silent-film-star smile. She and Deke were stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave, where the Joshua trees rose like gnarled arthritic hands out of the lakebed runway. She had been gung ho ever since the space race began on an October night in 1957 when Russia launched Sputnik over the United States on the same night Leave It To Beaver made its television debut. Sputnik means “fellow traveler” in Russian.

Koppel never explains what Leave It To Beaver has to do with Marge Slayton, or why we need to know the literal translation of “sputnik” to understand her relationship with Deke.

Aside from being peppered with a random sprinkling of barely-relevant facts, quite a few of the portraits of the wives as painted by Koppel are less than flattering. When Koppel introduces Trudy Cooper, she starts by dropping the bombshell that just before her husband Gordon was selected to become an astronaut, Trudy had run off to San Diego with their daughters to start life over after finding out Gordon had been cheating on her. But what started out as a story that might have painted her in a sympathetic light ends up making her look like a gold digger:

… she couldn’t bear to let such a choice assignment be forfeited … talks were already underway to give Life magazine exclusive coverage of the astronauts’ and their wives’ “personal stories” … The reward would be big: $500,000. If there was anything more amazing that Gordo could tell Trudy, she didn’t know what it was … the idea of half a million dollars, which was to be divvied up equally among the seven new space families … was like winning the lottery.

As tough as things might have been for a divorced woman in the 1960s, Trudy was a woman who was not without the wherewithal to make a new start on her own. A military wife, she would’ve had a network of people she could have turned to for support, and she was an accomplished pilot besides. Yet, the way Koppel tells the story, she chose to overlook Cooper’s infidelity for a one-time payout of a little more than $70K. There must have been just a little more to the story than that.

If there was, it must have been somewhere in the last half of the book that I didn’t read, and why would you do that? Nearly every story the wives could tell was broken up in a way that makes reading it almost painful:

Alan, Gordo and Gus were big racers, loved fast cars, and were planning to realize their hot-rod fantasies with their Life money. In the meantime, Gus and Deke continued to hunt in the wilds outside of Langley.

“Hey, where’d you get that cat?” asked Betty Grissom’s son Scotty about the black bear his father and his new astronaut friend Deke were dragging into the garage one Sunday. They’d brought home the kill, displaying the all-American frontiersman spirit that made the press call the boys “the greatest heroes since Christopher Columbus. The men who will take us to the stars!” The wives just looked at each other with frozen eyes.

“Thank goodness we got that money for our stories from Life,” said Betty.

I gave up after chapter three.

The Astronaut Wives Club | 10:20 am CST
Category: books, entertainment, play
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