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© 2014 Lenae Day


In 1959, women were not allowed to rent a car. Or take out a loan. 1959 is the year that NASA’s Mercury Program began. Seven military jet test pilots were chosen by their performance on various physical and mental tests. Men, all of them.

My trip to Florida was disguised as a working trip – seeing as I had become enamored of the early space program and had decided to recreate images of the Mercury Seven astronauts’ wives, I thought it would be perfect. I could do some photo shoots and soak up the local NASA culture and folklore – to see if I could latch on to some of the hope and optimistic patriotism I felt when I read about that time.

I went to Florida this summer to get away from it all. By “it all” I mean my life in Washington state – where the sun shines all of five days a year and swimming in the ocean in June (or July or August for that matter) is such a daring act that you might as well swim in January (which I do, on occasion).

When I left, I figured that I would be able to get a few good shots of the wives in their natural habitat – namely Florida. So I headed to the airport with a suitcase full of wigs, a half-finished bathing suit, and my friends’ sewing machine. Crazy. I was reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” and it was on the plane that I read about the Astronauts’ time in Florida. The wives never lived there. They lived in Virginia

at that time, then they moved to Houston in 1962. Florida was where the guys who had “the right stuff” and were always “pushing the edge of the envelope” went to party. And party hard.

These men were instant celebrities of a variety that is difficult to imagine happening today. They were war heroes before they had even left the ground – Knights of the Round Table, and their wives the first ladies of space. They were adrenaline junkies - given the fastest cars by auto dealerships. Florida is where they went to drink a lot and then race on the beach. Also to sleep with women who wanted to sleep with such gods. And they truly were gods, they were quite possibly going to be the first men in space. Ever.

No matter, I would still be able to soak up the NASA lore at Cape Canaveral seeing as I was staying with an old NASA family in New Smyrna. New Smyrna is a barrier island adjacent to the barrier island Cape Canaveral is on. My friend Mike moved back to his hometown to surf before heading to Grad school. His grandfather was an engineer who worked under Von Braun. Within his family, the NASA legend is still strong – bordering on obsession. The 1960s and 70s were the heyday, the golden age of Florida. His mother spoke of the astronauts as though they were close friends. An attitude I’m afraid I have adopted as well.

On my second day there, I rented a car (my first seeing as I was finally 25 and a real adult) so that we could make the seven-hour drive to Key West and visit the Hemingway house. And so my testosterone-filled vacation actually begins. And the Lucy and Ethel hijinks begin, as well.

My friend Kelsi (Mike’s wife) and I wait for three hours in Daytona for our car and finally hit the road at 8 p.m. – headed into Tropical Storm Debbie. When we hit Titusville, the rain starts to blanket our car and we realize that the windshield wipers don’t work unless we use the cleaning function – in which the solution is sprayed and the wipers go back and forth three times. No more. So every five or so seconds, I had to pull the goddamn lever seeing as the rain didn’t let up all the way to Miami (a four hour drive). I drank a 24 ouncer of burnt-vomity tasting coffee from the Waffle House. I imagined I was piloting my way through this storm the way Yeager flew his X-1, Glamorous Glennis or the way John Glenn made it through reentry with a possibly faulty heat shield in the Friendship 7. By the time we got to Miami, I felt like I had given myself carpel tunnel syndrome. We pulled into South Beach to see the club scene, which was hoppin’ despite the pounding rain. We looked for a hotel, but soon realized that the Miami Heat had just won the NBA Championship and not only were people going crazy, but every hotel in South Beach was full. I have to say that South Beach is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in the night – all the buildings are bleached art deco with neon lights. Even in a storm, I felt like I had somehow landed in heaven – if only all the people would clear out.

The time is now 2 am and we head over towards the airport to find a hotel close to where we are going to return the rental car in the morning. Every single one is full because all flights have been delayed. Around 3 am, we find a little rat’s nest of a motel and we stay there and it is fine. There are no bedbugs and we sleep, which is the point. In the morning, we head out to return the rental car, telling them what is broken and that the car has no washer fluid left. They give us a Ford Focus, no questions asked, and when I get in the car I immediately try the wipers. No luck. The same issue as the last – only the wash function works. Then I pull up on the handle and – drumroll – the fucking wipers work. THEY WORKED ALL ALONG! Which means – drumroll again – the other car’s wipers probably worked the whole time. Being me, I have to see for myself. So I sneak over to the returned car, which has been abandoned by the attendants.  I make sure no one is looking, and hop in the car – push up on the handle and – sure enough, they work. OH MY GOD! I yell as I run back to Kelsi, leap into the car and peel out in a blaze of shame and embarrassment. And laughter. And to Kelsi, a person with whom I had never spent an 8 hour car ride or three day weekend, I say, “You just witnessed a quintessential Lenae moment. There is nothing more true than what just happened. Welcome to my life.” So much for my valiant piloting skills.

The rest of that trip featured Kelsi dropping her purse over the wall of the Hemingway house as we tried to pet a kitty at 1 a.m. and me hoisting her over said wall to retrieve her purse, going to the wrong Sloppy Joe’s bar (a common mistake, but one that was full of slushy-induced fraternity/sorority drunkenness as opposed to grumpier old men drinking whisky in a bar full of bras and license plates), and a two-mile quest in 100 degree weather for the best Key Lime Pie – because, that’s what you do in Key West, right?

The day we got back, I drove all around Cocoa Beach looking for a AAA office that didn’t end up existing. So I headed to the Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is the oft-forgotten, seldom visited human-focused augment to the Kennedy Space Center which is only seven miles away in a swamp.

To read more about the astronauts and my misadventures in Florida, including a dead lizard in the display case of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, my vain attempts at holding it together for the attendant after my ride on the G-force simulator, and my subsequent crash of the rental car, please contact me to get on the email list, or follow me on twitter for more information on the release of the new issue of DAY Magazine to be released.