Men In Gray

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Growing up in Satellite Beach, Florida, in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center, in the 1960s, my friends and I often had our routines interrupted by cries of “Missile! Missile!” This was practically a weekly occurrence, but we were never complacent about it. It was our parents’ stock-in-trade. If your dad didn’t work for NASA, he worked for one of the many military contractors; Project Gemini was proceeding alongside ICBM tests and Polaris-missile launches.

My friends and I lived and breathed surfing. The summer of 1966 ( I was 16) was my last carefree one: no job and uncommonly great waves. One of our favorite surfing spots was behind a series of low buildings adjacent to the Officers’ Club at Patrick Air Force Base. We had surfed there for several years without comment from anyone, but one day we noticed several men in gray suits motioning for us to come out of the water. Few things could coax us to shore when the waves were good (sharks and lightning were two), and at first we ignored these people. When they became more insistent and vigorous in their waving, we waved back for them to come out to us. This routine continued for a short while, with the suits gesturing and us surfing, wondering who these men were and what they wanted. Finally, three dark blue Air Force Military Police jeeps pulled up sounding their sirens, and we decided it was time to head in. As we walked up the beach carrying our surfboards, we were informed that we hadn’t done anything wrong but that we would have to leave; we could return the next day if we wished.

We looked at one another, shrugged, and began loading the surfboards onto the car racks. Just before we finished, one of the men came up and apologized for having gotten us out of the water. We apologized for having given him a hard time. He replied, “Mrs. Johnson enjoyed watching you surf and insisted that we let you continue.”

I said, “ The Mrs. Johnson?”

We stood there with our mouths open, and he smiled and walked away.

Later that evening, when my father got home from work at NASA headquarters, he said, “Guess who I saw at work today?”

I replied, “Well, let’s see. President Johnson?”

He stood there with his mouth open. I smiled and walked away.