Castles on the Moon

Illustration: Eliane Gerrits

I can't stop staring at the astonishing photo that ran above the fold on page 1 of the New York Times on October 11. On one level, it's a standard news photo of Scott Carpenter, the penultimate survivor of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, who died last week. We see two fresh, neatly trimmed, energetic men shaking hands in the Oval Office of the White House. One is Carpenter. The other is President John F. Kennedy. Also in the photo is Carpenter's "wife at the time" Rene, and three of their four children.

But, if you look closer, it's a photograph freighted with all the weight of history, real and imagined. The astronaut's face is gleaming with pride. It is 1962, and he has just completed three orbits around Earth in a space capsule, a step toward achieving the nation's defining goal to put a man on the moon. JFK looks handsome, breezy, perhaps in a hurry, already turning away from Carpenter. "So sorry that I cannot stay longer."

Behind them stands the astronaut's family. Two sons, spitting images of their father, in fresh haircuts and suits, and the mother and her daughter, clad in Chanel outfits, complemented with a chapeau. Both have their hands demurely crossed in front of their laps. The perfect family of the perfect astronaut, visiting the perfect president of the perfect country.

As a child growing up in Holland, I believed in America and all it stood for. I remember looking breathlessly at the photos of the White House that ran in copies of Life magazine that I saw at a friend's house. The large format magazine, with glossy pictures spread across the whole page. The glamorous life of the Kennedys. JFK as a young god, handsome, clever, the epitome of success, surrounded by his two equally angelic children. His sophisticated wife, meticulously dressed, like a doll, and always with that mysterious, knowing smile reminiscent of Mona Lisa. The art on the walls, the books on the table, the elegant furniture. For me, living my life in small town Europe, America was another planet, one that ruled everything, including the moon.

Now, of course, we know better. This was the time of Mad Men, of facades. The perfect president was a serial womanizer. The reporters winked and looked the other way. The ideal family, like that of the Carpenters on the photo, did not exist in real life. All those housewives who stood at some respectful distance behind their men.

But, even as I learned about all the hypocrisies and fakery of this period, I felt somehow... sad, even angry. I believed in America, and now I felt let down. What went wrong? Everyone has different theories. Was it the fault of the baby boomers, who turned the We Generation into the Me Generation? Or corporate capitalism, destroying the environment and the climate? Or growing income inequality eroding the social contract? Americans seemed to stop talking about what they could give to their country. Now they had rights; they wanted to know what their country could do for them.

In the photograph we see the Great Seal of the United States on the wall of the Oval Office. Ex pluribus unum. But the citizens do not act as one anymore. They just shut down their federal government and are still fighting over it.

The astronauts so aptly portrayed in Tom Wolfe's novel The Right Stuff flew to a castle on the moon and for a small moment in history, made it their Camelot. Our Camelot. I think of the words of the song Jackie liked to listen to: "Do not let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."

Not long ago I was shopping in a used bookstore in a mall here and came across a boxful of Time-Life books similar the ones I used to read as a girl -- books about the White House, the Kennedys, other Presidents, the Wild West, glories of American history. They were on sale for practically nothing, as if they were thought to be worthless.

I bought the entire box. Some dreams are worth keeping.