When that appeared, I practiced restraint. I wanted to elbow everyone down the row and let them know that that was my 7th birthday. But with the self-effacing control of a Catholic saint, I sat still.
I did not scream it out, but here’s the truth: Scott Carpenter became the first American in space on My Birthday!
I remember that day. One of the best birthdays, because everyone made a big fuss over me and gave me kisses and presents in the morning, before school. Then, when I settled onto a seat in the classroom, as we always did, gathered around our teacher and not at our desks, the teacher asked, “Does anyone know what happened today?”
She knew! Bless her, she knew with her magical teacher powers! My hand shot up, and as soon as she called on me I said, “It’s my birthday!”
That wonderful lady laughed and clapped her hands, as if there were no other reason in the world for her to have asked a question other than acknowledging me. She called me up for the traditional fake spanking and pinch to grow an inch. I’m sure I glowed.
Somewhere jumbled in that memory is her pronouncement that America had sent a man into space that day, my birthday, and this was an Historic Day. And I would always remember it.
I knew nothing of the science behind launching a man into space. Until this movie came out, it never occurred to me to wonder how engineers, etc. managed that feat, even though I worked for the aerospace industry in the 1990s, with a few men who remembered the Apollo program first-hand. That IBM computers might not have been available to them, or might have been less than perfect all the time, were not things I imagined.
And civil rights? The idea that Langley AFB was in a segregated state? The movie mentions Brown v. Topeka Board of Education and states an obvious fact that I truly was aware of: even though that Supreme Court decision was made in 1954, desegregation did not occur right away. Most of us rightly recall that happening in the 1960s.
But did I ever think of segregation affecting NASA? Of course not. Until now.
The movie is terrific, by the way. Lighthearted, even though it deals with very serious subjects. The fact that the three women in it are real, that you can google them and read about their accomplishments before or after seeing Hidden Figures, takes an edge off. You don’t have to wonder, “OMG, what is going to happen now? Is someone going to die?” There’s no spoiler here to say that all three women achieved great things and were recognized as brilliant in their lifetimes.
In contrast, I had watched The Free State of Jones a couple of nights before. Also excellent, also grounded in historical fact, also marked by extraordinary performances. But that movie was intense, with scenes that made you flinch and shut your eyes (I have a low threshold for gore and violence). As my friend pointed out, most of us can’t imbibe movies like that too frequently. We need time to process them, contextualize the lessons, and ponder how such violence stays with us, even into the 21st century.
Hidden Figures is not so intense. Thankfully. There is happiness; these women were wives and mothers and BFFs, along with being brilliant professionals.
So here’s my takeaway: I am not happy that hatefulness and bigotry occurred during my lifetime. I am not proud that people I loved in my childhood could not rise above their own prejudices; in some cases, they didn’t even try. But I can be amazed at how much has changed since 1961.
The movie drives home this point: every generation moves forward. The bigots of the 1960s are mostly gone now, and their descendant have largely rejected their blatant racism.
The older I get, the more I see this. We do what we can to solve problems, but a lot of the healing simply occurs as people take their lifelong mistakes to the grave and leave the world to more open hearts.