"What do you say we all go water skiing tomorrow at noon?" Such an offer would have excited me under any circumstance—I'd been up on skis only half a dozen times, behind an open boat with a 15-hp Evinrude outboard that took a full 30 seconds to get an 11-year-old planing on glassy water—but this invitation, in the summer of 1960, came from Navy Commander Alan Shepard Jr., who the following May would become America's first man in space.
We were in Virginia Beach, Va., and my parents were having a party for a friend whose ship was leaving the next day to join the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Shepard had been in town for a few days' R & R, and Duke Windsor, a Navy pilot who'd been the first to fly over 1,000 mph in a non-experimental aircraft, had brought him and his wife to the party.
After asking a bunch of questions, then gawking and watching the party from out on a dune, my brothers and I were called in to say good-night and then sent up to our third-floor bedroom. It seemed only moments after falling asleep that I was awakened by my mother's voice and the sound of engines revving. I stood on my bed and looked out the window to the street. Eight cars—a Corvette, two Alfa Romeos, a Mercedes 190 SL, an MG, a Triumph, a Jaguar roadster and a Peugeot station wagon—were lined up racing-style, two abreast, four deep, their headlights blazing. At the wheels were pilots intent on leaving the party in grand style—by means of an impromptu race, no less. My mother, standing at the side of the road, waved a beach towel to start the race. The Peugeot stalled at the start, but the seven sports cars tore down Atlantic Avenue, a four-lane straightaway, passing one another, ignoring the double yellow lines but staying in a clump until Shepard's Corvette screamed out ahead. They all disappeared from sight before the noise of their exhausts died in the distance. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to be a Navy aviator, and then an astronaut.
Just as I was dozing off again, a tremendous boom lifted me out of my bed, rattled the windows and doors and shook the dresser so hard that my watch fell to the floor. Someone had broken the sound barrier directly over our house. I got to the window in time to see a fighter jet rising over the ocean, afterburner blazing. Seven more Crusaders followed, coming in over the land at treetop level, rising suddenly, kicking on afterburners, increasing in speed, kabooming through the sound barrier and then disappearing over the ocean. My brothers and I were on the beach waving as the planes vanished. This was the pilots' way of saying thanks for the party.
At noon Chip, my oldest brother, and I were on a dock at one of the pilots' houses on the bay where most of Virginia Beach went water skiing. Since Shepard was returning to base to continue his astronaut training, he was to go first. I got to sit in his boat, a sleek wooden model with a windshield, a steering wheel and twin Mercury 90-hp outboards.
Shepard waded into the water right by the dock, took the towline and held it until it was taut. "He doesn't have any skis," I said to Windsor, who was driving. "You just watch," he said, "and let me know if he goes down." Shepard called for us to hit it.
The acceleration of the boat pushed me well into my seat, and I watched as Shepard rose from the water and skied on his bare feet. Nonchalant as could be, he skied from wake to wake, leaning into the turns like an Olympic slalomist. For his finale he cut as far as he could to his right; the towrope was almost perpendicular to the boat as we headed straight for the dock, full speed. Just when I was sure a crash was inevitable—those on the dock must have thought so, too, because all at once they raised their arms, screamed and ran for shore—Windsor turned the boat 180 degrees, cut the engines and sent a spray of water over the dock. I would have gone with it had I not obeyed the instruction to "hang on tight."
Chip went next. But rather than try to better Shepard, or even come close, he took a different tack: a dock start. After losing his balance and skiing the cove with one ski high in the air, he somehow recovered and immediately dropped the ski he couldn't control and slalomed on the other for the rest of his run. He dipped and cut from side to side and sped through the turns to the outer edge, straining the towrope as if he were a planet trying to break out of its orbit. As we came back into the cove, slowing somewhat, he let go just in time.
My turn was next. Not to be outdone, I decided to try a dock start. The skis were heavy, and it was all I could do to hold the tips in the air. Chip was the lookout in the boat, and when I thought I was ready, I told him to hit it. For a moment nothing happened, then the boat took off with such force that I found myself flying through the air, arms and head first, my ski tips dragging behind in the water. I belly flopped and, still holding the towline, went submarining to the sandy bottom, which I was beginning to scrape as the towrope slackened.
Humiliated, I surfaced, determined to try again, but reason and the others' pleas persuaded me to start from the water.
I rose without a flaw and cut through the wake like a master. I was doing much better than I'd ever done, so as we came into the cove I resolved to at least finish with a respectable flourish. I raced toward the beach as my brother had, but I must have let go of the tow a little too late, because when the skis hit the beach and stopped I was still going at a pretty good clip. Once again I was airborne, but instead of landing in the water I went backfirst, head-down into a holly bush.
Chip went on to the Naval Academy. I guess I didn't have the right stuff.