As a child, my father’s employment at NASA caused me a great amount of self-inflicted embarrassment and internal conflict. I felt everyone employed by NASA should be an astronaut traveling to and from work in a space shuttle.
If someone asked me where my father worked, I’d reply: “NASA” quickly following in an apologetic tone, “But he’s not an astronaut.” In reality, I didn’t have a great grasp on what it was my father did at work; I knew it involved “contracts and contractors.” I also knew there were two things about his work that were impressive to me:
-There was a snack machine
-Every Thursday was taco salad day in the cafeteria
The snack machine situation blew my undeveloped mind. How does one have access to an unlimited supply of snacks in the same building they are supposed to be working? I imagined what was really taking place at NASA was a line 40 people deep waiting to get candy, gum, and chips out of the snack machine. In between waiting in line, workers would check their monitors making sure the astronauts floating around in space were safe. Occasionally, my father would bring home something from this dispenser of joy. If I thought my father had a stick of gum or a few spare Doritos tucked away in his suit pocket, I would fall to his feet and beg him to relinquish the goods.
If the snack machine caused me to have a visibly emotional response, taco salad day nearly sent me into an epileptic seizure. Taco salad day, in the form of two saltine crackers wrapped in cellophane, was the gift that kept on giving. Every Thursday I would rush to my father as he entered our living room, “Did you have taco salad at lunch today? Did you bring me home anything?” My voice would quiver with excitement.
Usually, my father did not have taco salad for lunch and therefore did not have any crackers for me. On the days he did bring home a package of saltines, I would snatch them from his hand and run off to eat them; nibbling lengthwise like a squirrel taking in its first nut after a long winter.
In third grade Ms. Davis told us our next assignment was to give a presentation on our parent’s jobs. I chose my father; my mother worked at a library – BORING.
The next day, Jamal told everyone his dad was a dentist, Kathy said she didn’t know her parents but her grandparents were both retired, and Ashley told us her mom was a babysitter while her dad finished serving his prison sentence. I grew more nervous as I thought how difficult it would be to impress the class after these great presentations.
Finally, it was my turn. I was fighting the urge to run from the room in embarrassment, when I remembered I had the aces of the snack machine and taco salad Thursday up my sleeve. I knew that armed with these two facts about my father’s job, I would inspire cheers of joy, maybe a standing ovation, from my classmates.
I approached the front of the classroom.
“My dad works at NASA, but he’s not an astronaut.” I told my classmates. Some of them stared back at me silently. Most looked down at their desks or seemed otherwise distracted.
Bringing out the firepower, I explained the concept of a snack machine and how amazing it must be that my father was able to work in a building that had one, probably more, of these bad boys.
Most of my classmates continued to look down at their desks. Absolutely none of them seemed impressed.
Tough crowd, but I’d saved the best for last. “Every Thursday the cafeteria at my dad’s work serves taco salad.” I was bringing it home like only a cellophane wrapped packet of saltine crackers could.
I laid out the details of taco salad day and looked up expectantly at my classmates. Nothing. No cheers; no shouts of joy.
Ms. Davis stifled a yawn, her eyes bleary with boredom.
This wasn’t how I was going to go out damn it. My dad works at NASA! He has access to a snack machine and taco salad Thursdays! What more do these people want? The answer hit me quickly, my stomach lurched as I realized what this crowd demanded – they wanted astronauts.
I walked over to the classroom doorway, and gently shut the door. Now all eyes were on me.
I turned to my classmates, a huge grin spread across my face as I tried to suppress the thrill I was about to let loose on the class.
“I’m not supposed to tell this to anyone, so please don’t tell my mom. My dad really does work for NASA. His name is Neil Armstrong. He doesn’t come around much. Only when he has time between missions.”
Now I had everyone’s attention.
Note: Originally Published in The Decades Review Issue 11, April 2014 http://media.wix.com/ugd/182c20_3c64a098d38a4e89990a9e48a327291b.pdf