My parents worked hard to give their children a better life. Education was important. Every year we went on vacation to historic sites — lots of battlefields and museums. It was my father’s way of pursuing his love of history. He was always reading. My mother read to us as children. This was how my parents instilled a love of learning into my sisters and me.
It was very early in the space age when I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. Science-fiction television shows provided exciting images of different possibilities. Many had images of the future where people had good lives. There did not seem to be poor people. I dreamed a lot about a better future. I knew how hard life could be from my parents’s stories. We continued to visit relatives still living in dark Harlem brownstones, and 20 story brick and metal housing projects. They were not very nice places.
When I was 9 years old, we moved into a house on the edge of a small town in New Jersey — South River. It had open spaces — trees, a river, ponds. I loved to explore! The town also had excellent public school teachers who provided me with a solid foundation for my future in science, sports, history, literature, and geography.
I day dreamed a lot. I wanted to be part of that future where everyone had good lives. It was also the very early years of space exploration. I remember hearing the radio news in school about an American man going into space. I think it was Alan Shepard. Television and movies about the future seemed to becoming real. I wanted to be an astronaut. I studied hard in school. I talked about what I wanted to do but I was told: “girls don’t do that” and “little girls dreams don’t come true.” I didn’t listen. I kept dreaming.
In junior high school I met a girl who told me about an organization called Civil Air Patrol. It was the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. I was told that they taught aerospace education.
I was 14 years old when I joined as a cadet. We wore real Air Force uniforms. We had aerospace education classes every week. We learned military protocol, practiced survival techniques, and fly an airplane. Our group had a Piper Cub airplane so on Sundays my father drove me to the airport for my flight lessons. In the summer, I attended week-long camps at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, where we had to prepare our beds in military fashion — so tight that a quarter should bounce. We got up early for uniform inspections, marched to classes, and flew in cargo aircraft. At 18 years old I could no longer be in Civil Air Patrol but I had learned a lot including self-discipline and focus. I continued to work on my dream of the future in space exploration.