“December is the holdout month, all the others torn away.” ― Anne Gisleson, The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading
With Christmas Day of 2022 only 12 days away – and New Year’s Eve 18 days in the future – and my move to Brandon looming on a date that is “TBA” as of today, my mind keeps on circling back to December of 1972. Not in the same vivid, almost cinematic fashion in which it made me relive my bittersweet “first love” experience at Coral Park Elementary School in November of that year, but in a set of fractured, hazy memories centered on my first in an almost unbroken string of Christmas holidays in the United States, of which the past six have been spent here in Lithia.
December 13, 1972, fell on a Wednesday, which means that Dade County Public Schools were still in session and I was still adjusting to my new learning environment teachers at Tropical Elementary School, where I was now enrolled as a “pupil” in the Special Education Department (read, the section for kids with physical disabilities).
This is how I remember my Special Education class at Tropical Elementary School, as I described it in a blog post that I wrote for the website Cerebral Palsy Guidance in 2016:
Tropical’s Special Ed. department was in the wing of the 1960s-era campus that was close to the bus loading zone. The school had a similar layout to that of Coral Park – several wings of classroom blocks separated by grassy spaces and linked together by covered concrete walkways. It had its nice areas – I liked the open spaces of the PE field and the cozy school library – but Tropical had a utilitarian look that I never really loved.
If memory serves, our Special Ed. department was divided according to our disabilities. Ms. Nabutovsky, for instance, taught kids with visual impairments. Mrs. Chambers (my teacher) and Mrs. Castor taught physically challenged students. Ms. Darrow was responsible for children with Down’s Syndrome and other developmental disabilities.
In Mrs. Chambers’ class, we were divided into sub-groups according to our grade and academic skills. I was assigned to the third-grade group that included my friends James Miller, Raul Fonseca, Joaquin “Kiki” Trias, and several others.
I was lucky to have Mrs. Chambers; she was bilingual, and even though she taught lessons exclusively in English, she sometimes took some time to explain things in Spanish if she noticed I was confused or didn’t understand directions.
We students spent much of our time in one classroom – Mrs. Chambers’ class was in Room 29. Most of our learning consisted of reading, writing, and arithmetic in the morning, with a trip to the cafeteria for lunch, recess, PE class, then afternoon classwork again.
We also had weekly Cub Scout meetings for those boys who wanted to join Pack 396, and on Tuesdays we’d do arts and crafts with the Garden Ladies. In addition, we all had at least one hour of either physical or occupational therapy.
50 years ago today, I was nearly one month into my second and longest of the two romantic relationships I was in as a kid. On my second – or maybe third – day at Tropical Elementary, I saw (and was attracted to) a cute redheaded girl who I met when we were out on the school’s physical education field for, natch, our PE class. Her name was “K,” and even though she had a mild variant of cerebral palsy and needed a wheelchair to get around, I thought she was beautiful. Not as beautiful as Cheryl T, who I still missed, but pretty on her own merits.
Maybe it was because she and I were both physically “challenged,” or maybe it was because I had yet to feel the sting of rejection from an able-bodied girl that I was attracted to, but I was still a confident, self-assured boy then. So even though I still – in my mind – was in love with Cheryl, I was also coming around to the reality that since Mom had “lost” my first girlfriend’s number and I couldn’t contact her, I might as well seek out a new girlfriend.
By December 13, 1972, I had already gone to “K’s” house a few times – usually on Saturdays – and discovered the joys of “alone time” with a girl. I was too young to have known about sex then – I only learned the word “fuck” and its definition a year or so later, and even then, I didn’t start thinking about doing that with “K” until I was way older, by which time our relationship was about to run its course – but I did know about lips-to-lips kissing, and “K” and I did that a lot. Mostly in her room; her mom, dad, and older siblings were almost always at home, and they thought we made a “cute couple.” They certainly didn’t care if we spent our time kissing; I think they knew I was both naïve and ridiculously respectful, so they trusted me with their youngest daughter, who was, and still is, three months older than me.
So, even though part of me still missed my first “official” girlfriend and I’d feel pangs of guilt at odd times about not being able to call her, not even once, I was a happy nine-going-on-ten boy; I was now a Bobcat in the Cub Scouts, was in a more suitable learning environment and picking up the English language at a faster clip, and – on the surface, anyway – gotten over my first true heartbreak.
At home, Mom was struggling to find a balance between her roles as homemaker, mom, and breadwinner. I don’t remember if she was working in the nutrition department at Palmetto General Hospital along with my older half-sister Vicky and her best friend of the time, Carmelita Blasco; I know that she had that gig for about a year or so, but I’m not sure if it was in 1972 or ’73. I do remember that she had to wear a work uniform and that she worked an 8 AM – 6 PM schedule, which is why she taught me how to heat TV dinners in our kitchen’s oven so I could learn how to be self-reliant when she was not home.
Speaking of my older half-sister Vicky, from whom I am presently estranged, she and I had (at least from my perspective) a normal, even loving sibling bond. Back then, I had no idea about how angry Vicky was about the family’s insistence that she had to leave Bogota and move to Miami and rejoin us, and since I was a kid and did not understand such concepts as “un-ladylike behavior,” “adultery,” and “keeping up appearances,” I was not told why my maternal grandparents and others in the Bogota branch of the family insisted that Vicky could not live on her own in Colombia.
And because Vicky was, and still is, someone who can act like a loving, generous person while inwardly holding a grudge and being passive-aggressive, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-40s that I became aware that she blamed me for having to decamp from Bogota and move to Miami, a city that she doesn’t like because it’s too hot and humid.
Anyway, at the time, Vicky and I got along well, or at least I thought we did. The only major conflicts that I remember having with her were trivial, like who got to watch TV on Mom’s color set (Vicky had a small black-and-white set in her room; I would get a similar TV for my 10th birthday) or how long either one of us was “hogging” the bathroom that we shared.
Every so often, though, I have flashes of memories of arguments between Vicky and Mom, often loud and vicious, that I could hear from my room. I hated it when they argued, and even though I knew better than to get in the middle of their fights, I would get pissed at Vicky and mentally take Mom’s side.
Thus, estrangements are born, I suppose.
In the wider world, the Sixties (which apparently spilled over onto the Seventies) were coming to an end.
It was around this time that Apollo 17, the last manned Moon landing, was still in its “astronauts on the Moon” phase; Mission Commander Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt (the only trained scientist in the Astronaut Corps to leave Earth orbit and walk on the Moon and later a one-term U.S. Senator) had landed on the Moon two days earlier, and they would stay at the Taurus–Littrow landing site until the next day, December 14.
I vaguely remember watching, late at night, the liftoff of Apollo 17 on Mom’s color TV. It was the first and only Apollo flight launched at night, and even though many watches of documentaries about NASA’s manned missions have overwritten my “real” memories of the telecast, it was a spectacular thing to behold. I recall Mom saying that if we lived in Orlando or even Tampa, we could have seen the trail of light from the Saturn V rocket if we looked in the right direction.
It was during Apollo 17’s flight back home that the famous photo of Earth known as The Blue Marble was shot by a member of the spacecraft’s three-man crew. History does not record if Command Module Pilot Ron Evans or Moon-walker Harrison Schmitt snapped the now-iconic photograph showing a nearly-gibbous Earth from the Mediterranean Sea down to the south polar ice cap. However, as the Wikipedia article about the stunningly beautiful image explains:
The Apollo 17 image, however, released during a surge in environmental activism during the 1970s, became a symbol of the environmental movement, as a depiction of Earth’s fragility, vulnerability, and isolation amid the vast expanse of space.
I’ll write a bit more about December 1972 and why I say the early Seventies were the “real” end of the Sixties in future installments of Tempus Fugit. Until next time. Dear Reader, stay safe, stay healthy, and I’ll catch you on the sunny side of things.
 Growing Up with Cerebral Palsy – Part Four of a Series, March 17, 2016
2 thoughts on “Tempus Fugit: Remembering Mid-December, 1972: New School, New Girlfriend, and Apollo’s Last Hurrah”
I can see a copy of that Earth rising photo from where I sit. It’s on our kitchen wall.
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I used to have a National Geographic reversible poster. with “The Blue Marble” photo (seen on this post) on one side, and a graphic showing all the Apollo astronauts that travelled to the Moon (including the two crews that orbited (Apollo 8 and 13) but did not land, on the other side.
I wish I had posters of this photo and of the famous “Earthrise” one taken by astronaut Bill Anders in December of 1968.
Apropos of Moon flights: It seems that the Artemis spacecraft (which we tested last week) really is lunar mission worthy!
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