Reflections of a Space Coast childhood

Free-return trajectory

By Dagney C. Ernest | Nov 28, 2018
Courtesy of: Linda Buckmaster Linda Buckmaster is the epitome of Space Coast fervor even before moving to Cape Canaveral, as a family photo taken at Miami Beach evidences.

Almost 50 years ago, former Belfast Poet Laureate Linda Buckmaster left Florida, where she had grown up on the fabled Space Coast during the heyday of the manned flight program, to create a life in Midcoast Maine. Earlier this month, she went back to the Sunshine State, her past literally in hand.

Buckmaster spent a week and a half touring her book, recently published by Orlando-based Burrow Press, and visiting some of her former haunts. Thursday, Nov. 29, at 7 p.m., she will present “Space Heart. A Memoir in Stages” at the downtown Camden Public Library.

Buckmaster calls her book a hybrid memoir, because it is a mix of writing forms, including long and short essays, flash pieces, prose poems and short shots of historical information and literary quotes.

“The material just wanted to be that way, you know! I started out trying to make a regular, straightforward memoir … but I was trying to fit myself into a certain framework and it wasn't really working,” she said during the month’s first snowstorm, speaking by phone from the 22nd floor of the Marriott Miami Biscayne Bay.

It took seven years and five complete structure-related revisions before starting its publication process. One revision, a shorter work, was geared toward chapbook contests, one of the approaches Buckmaster took to find a publisher. In the end, a small independent press where she had already published some work chose “Space Heart” for one of its four-a-year book selections.

“They have an online journal called Fantastic Floridas, really great stuff — not poetry but prose, either fiction or nonfiction. They had already published a couple of my pieces on there, then put out kind of a quiet call for book proposals from people who had only been in their journal before,” she said.

Buckmaster had sent her book out to many a publisher at that point, but the nonprofit Burrow, which focuses, although not exclusively, on contemporary literature by Floridians and/or about Florida, seemed the perfect fit.

“When I sent it out, I thought, if anybody's going to publish his book, they are, because they're going to get it,” she said. “And they did!”

“Space Heart,” as its subtitle suggests, is divided into three stages, taking their cues from the stages of a manned space flight: Launched, Fallout and Recovery. Years after relocating to Maine, she relates in the book, she realized the rocket launch sequence is in her bones — which is why, as she watched the Challenger launch as a substitute teacher with her Belfast Area High School students, she knew the instant it had failed.

The barrier island Space Coast of the 1950s and ‘60s — “a one-of-a-kind scene and one-of-a-kind place” — is one of four strands in Buckmaster’s memoir. She graduated from Satellite High, but the book focuses on an earlier time that had significant ramifications for both the country and her family. The second strand of the “Space Heart” weave explains its title.

“I was born with a heart murmur, which turned out to be a hole between the auricles. For years I was watched, wasn't restricted in any way, but they said, hopefully, that they would come up with the right surgery before I went through adolescence, because your heart changes then,” she said.

In 1962 — the year astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth three times and Telstar, the first communications satellite, was launched — Buckmaster had open-heart surgery. She was one of the first children to be operated on using heart-lung machine and induced hypothermia. A tube of space-program-developed Teflon, used to repair the hole in her heart, is still in place.

“So it was this amazing confluence of the technology being available at the time when I was 11,” she said.

Researching the early days of “cowboy” open-heart surgery as part of writing “Space Heart” was sobering for one of its success stories.

“It was wild! Some of it was just plain nasty, too, but the only way they could do it was by experimenting,” she said. “We, our family, had great confidence in science.”

Wildlife contributes a third strand to “Space Heart,” which includes lyrical descriptions of watching sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs under moonlight; and an appreciation of palmettos. Before the space program established itself at Cape Canaveral, it was wild, natural world, Buckmaster said.

“We always think Florida was all developed. But, you know, there were bobcats on the road going out to Cape Canaveral; it was still just really wild,” she said.

The book’s fourth strand is her family’s story. Buckmaster’s father was a rocket engineer and an alcoholic who “drank his way out of his security clearance, which meant that he could never work at the Cape again.” Her parents eventually divorced; her younger brother, who shares the Space Coast narrative and a later road trip, slipped into addiction. They are all gone now, Buckmaster reveals in her final piece, “Orbiting.”

“It's kind of a prose poem, and at my party, [musician] Tom Luther accompanied me on the last piece,” she said of the book’s launch event Nov. 4 at Waterfall Arts.

Buckmaster often closes her book presentations with “Orbiting,” but switches things up depending on the audience. Most of them have been in Maine and Florida; being on the opposite ends of Route 1, they often react differently to her stories. The title essay mentions a full-size cement dolphin in front of the Sands Motel, “the spotlight at night making shadows in the cement foam,” which points up the distinction nicely.

“I stopped in the middle of a reading down here and said, 'Now I know you all know this, but in Maine, this sounds really exotic',” she said.

But Florida has always been a land of “from away” folk, so Buckmaster’s tales of the early days are far from common lore even there. And younger people aren’t as connected to the space industry as those who were young when it was.

“Anybody my age, you know, they remember it, even if they lived in Ohio or some other place,” she said.

Buckmaster enjoyed her time in Florida, flying into Orlando Melbourne International, the airport closest to where she grew up; doing reading/talks in Cocoa, Winter Park and New Smyrna Beach; and signing books at the Miami Book Fair. The heat and humidity were familiar — she grew up at a time when only fancy restaurants and such had air conditioning.

“I just remember being really miserable and being sticky and sweaty — and the midges! I grew up in a situation that was the antithesis of the one I came to in Maine,” she said. “I figure I'm a Mainer and a Florida girl and definitely still that combination.”

In addition to the Camden library talk, Buckmaster and sister former Belfast Poet Laureate Elizabeth Garber will be signing their new memoirs Saturdays, Dec. 1 and 15, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the United Farmers Market in Belfast. For more information about Buckmaster and her work, visit lindabuckmaster.com.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.