Travels With Cubby: A Father's Legacy

Each Father's Day, my dad gave his children gifts. He always enclosed a note of appreciation, telling how proud he was of each of us and our accomplishments -- how happy he was to be our dad. But my father's most lasting gift, which I didn't understand until after he died, was the joy of travel.
06/14/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

Each Father's Day, my dad gave his children gifts. He always enclosed a note of appreciation, telling how proud he was of each of us and our accomplishments -- how happy he was to be our dad. But my father's most lasting gift, which I didn't understand until after he died, was the joy of travel.

A hard-working family practice physician, my dad left home before dawn most days to check on his patients in the hospital, then spent long hours at his office, often arriving home well after dark. We barely saw him.

Each summer, to carve out quality time with his blended family, he took us someplace new. For two weeks we'd stay at nice motels -- always with a swimming pool -- eat in restaurants virtually every meal, and come home tanned and rested. At journey's end, there would always be a "map quiz" to test our recall of the sights we'd seen and the adventures we'd shared.

After he passed away in 2008, we found a ticket he'd saved. It bore the NASA insignia and -- in the center -- a bald eagle, wings spread, an olive branch clutched in its talons, descending to the cratered surface of the moon, earth in the black distance over its shoulder. This memento, which my father saved for almost 40 years, made me appreciate anew the lengths to which he went to expand our world.

In July 1969, my father packed up my sister and me, my stepmother, Stevie, and her two teenage daughters, and flew us from Seattle to the far end of the country -- Orlando, Florida. Our destination wasn't Disney World, which was still under construction. Cubby, as my father had been dubbed by my stepsisters after one of the original Mouseketeers, planned to make us a part of something bigger, something world-changing.

We stayed in Cocoa Beach with family friends whose dad worked for NASA. That's how, on the sunny morning of July 16th, we came to be standing in a grassy field at Cape Kennedy with several hundred strangers in sunglasses. We clustered near Cubby who, judging from the drops of perspiration on his brow and around the silver temples of his crew cut, was already overheating in his khakis and checkered sport shirt. He pointed out the spaceship that waited three miles away, nose pointed heavenward. It was a perfect morning, the sky blue with a light haze, a breeze riffling the finger of water that separated us from the launch area.

I don't remember being especially excited. As a child of the '60s, I took the space program for granted. I'd watched on television with my third-grade class when John Glenn orbited the earth, and astronauts had been routinely blasting off into space ever since. I was bored, almost, suspecting this was just another of Cubby's quirky enthusiasms. We were living at a moment of great importance, but I was just along for the ride.

On our trips, I was accustomed to having sights chosen for me. Sometimes they met with my approval; other times, not so much. I'd loved our journey down the West Coast in 1967, especially our stopover in San Francisco, which was in the throes of the Summer of Love. When I worked up the courage to buy a Berkeley Barb newspaper from a young man with dark, shoulder-length hair and a luxurious beard, fringe dripping from the sleeves of his buckskin jacket, I felt I'd found the New Frontier. But the following summer, I spent our only day at Yellowstone poring over the thick, glossy fall issue of Seventeen magazine, dreaming of the stylish clothes I'd never be able to afford--rather than appreciating nature's wonders. When my father noted this in his rear-view mirror and commented "You're not seeing any of this, are you?" I heard sadness in his voice.

That day, waiting on a patch of sun-bleached grass at Cape Kennedy, I was probably worrying that I looked fat in the flowered A-line shift I'd sewn, or recalculating the calories I'd consumed for breakfast.

But when the countdown reached zero and hot pink and bright orange smoke billowed out from the launch site, all eyes were on Apollo 11, the black and white ship with USA painted in horizontal letters down its side. When the fearsome roar of the engines intensified and reached us, pummeling our chests, I began to weep and urge that heavy ship upward. In that moment, I finally understood how much work and risk a launch represented. The spaceship rose a little and seemed to shift sideways. Then the rockets kicked in and we heard, "We have liftoff."

Apollo 11 started its historic journey heavenward, flame shooting out beneath its rockets. At altitude, its trajectory appeared to curve, just like launches we'd seen on television. Then it disappeared from view to thundering cheers.

Four days later, I lay alongside my sisters on a bed at a motel in the Everglades, gazing up at a grainy black-and-white television mounted on the wall. We were four teenage girls in bikinis, watching with rapt attention as the same astronaut who had been launched by that rocket at Cape Kennedy now backed down a ladder into a barren moonscape as his companion announced, "The Eagle has landed."

The poor video reception made the man in the voluminous space suit seem very far away. I didn't comprehend just then that he was as far away from earth as a human being had ever been. Nor did it occur to me that, thanks to my father -- watching with Stevie in the next room -- I'd witnessed history in the making.

It was only years later -- after I'd become the mother of teenagers and was working hard to bring home the bacon -- that I fully appreciated how creative my father was in his choice of trips, and how expensive they must have been. I wish he were here so I could thank him again.