A B Plan
Sometimes I give speeches at elementary schools. I wait backstage in the wings where they hang the discarded costumes of the four food groups, costumes that are now unused, in light of the Surgeon General's newly revised food pyramid. From here I overhear the students asking questions like, "Who is this guy?" or "What were they doing on the moon?" or "Where's the first guy? They should have gotten the first guy."During the assemblies I tell the children, "On the way to the moon we had to drink through straws. Can anyone tell me why astronauts drink through straws?" I get many answers to that question but never the right one.
On the schools' miniature stages I am gargantuan. I have a hole in my space suit. It is tired. The material has aged. It is not the real one, not the one I wore to the moon. Can anyone tell me what would happen to an astronaut on the surface of the moon if he had a hole in his space suit? That's right.
He'd be sucked out through the hole like a piece of spaghetti. Like a straw.
During the assemblies I always ask one child, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" because I used to be guaranteed the answer, "I want to be an astronaut!" but not anymore. Now the children say, "I want to be an anchorperson," or, "Mister, I'd like to be in pictures, or "Make me a star!" and they don't mean a galactic sphere of gases burning hot on nitrogen or oxygen or helium.
Biographers always note that I was "one of the first two men to walk on the moon." Which is true but not as true as what the school children say, "You mean he was the second man." Biographers sometimes include the fact that my mother's maiden name was Moon. That's even truer and Neil Armstrong can't say that. "The National Space Society board of directors will come to order," a young stenographer announces. She calls roll. Hugh Downs. Arthur C. Clark via video conference call from Sri Lanka. Michael Collins, he's the man who stayed on board. Senator John Glenn. Tom Hanks. Jim Lavelle, who Tom Hanks played in a movie. And the young woman. John Denver used to be one of us.
Bob Hope used to be here too. We keep their pictures on the wall.
"Come to order," she says again and sits in front of her steno machine.
Tom Hanks speaks first and the young woman begins to record. He says, "Well I don't know about the rest of you but," and then he doesn't finish. He'd like an astronaut to start the conversation but we rarely do and the room is soon quiet. Hugh Downs tries to begin again with, "Brethren," and then, "What a beautiful day." In the silence that follows this opening I hear a hum in the room's filtration system, a buzz and a tap, tap, tapping of someone's nervous leg beneath the conference table."All right, outer space, guys," Tom Hanks says and he starts, "Venus is out. Am I right? Too hot, right? Right. Pretty sure I'm right on that one," he says. "So, Senator, Doctors, fellas what about Mars? Huh? Mars. It sounds great!" he says. "Plus the darn thing is bright red. What do you think? Huh? What do you think?" Tom Hanks is asking me."
I think this room is a bit chilly," I say and most of the board members think I am making a joke.
"Well, sure Mars is going to be chilly, as the doctor so aptly put it but we're Americans," Tom says and claps his hands together twice. "Now," as a general leading troops into battle, "who's with me?"
In truth, I myself am building a little spaceship and the truest thing about it is that it is little. There is a place for me and there is a place for my wife. It is a tiny travel pod that we're hoping will feel a bit roomier once we're ready to go, once we are done growing up, once we're beginning to do the opposite, once osteoporosis sets in and we start to shrink.
You see my wife and I are waiting until we are older to travel in our small craft off into outer space because this trip will be a one way trip, if you understand what I mean. It will be the journey of a lifetime. We will go as far as we can, past the end of this galaxy, past the ends of hundreds of galaxies, on and on through time and space. We will not return. We don't want to. We will die in outer space and even then, once we are dead, our spaceship will cruise through the universe past asteroids and meteors, past black holes and star clusters. No, we don't want to return, plus, the United States and Russia have an agreement in place that says any craft that has traveled to Mars or beyond is not allowed to ever return to Earth. They are afraid of diseases, Martian diseases, infecting our planet. That's fine. We don't want to come back anyway.
I have loved outer space ever since I was very young. One night I saw a strange and beautiful thing. It was my mother spinning in circles alone, outside with her head raised up to the stars. I sneaked up on her. I touched her leg as she spun. It felt like a horse's hot neck, like she'd been spinning for hours. She jumped some when I touched her. My mother scared easily. "Oh, there, best boy. I didn't know you were here." She stopped spinning and stumbled some from the centrifugal force or maybe just because she was dizzy. "Have you ever seen anything as beautiful as this?" she asked. But I don't believe she could have seen anything. Her vision was still spinning and her head kept trying to catch and hold one light to steady herself. She looked up and finally focused on the Moon. Her maiden name was Moon. "Have you, best boy?"
"No," I said but I didn't just mean the stars. I also meant her and her legs like horses.
The moon is small. The moon is ours. I wonder why we are going to Mars. Mars. Mars. I wonder why no one, not even me and my tiny craft, is making plans to live on the moon.
Hugh Downs never says much. Except sometimes he used to make jokes about Bob Hope's last name. He doesn't do that anymore. Which reminds me. Moments before we landed on the moon I had a thought that I've never told anybody. It was, "Neil Armstrong, despite his last name, is not as strong as I am. What if I pushed him out of my way and I got there first?" I thought.
It was a plan B. But I like Neil and so I took the thought back.
When we did arrive on the moon I wondered if my mother might be there. But Neil got out first. He left his first corrugated footprint. He started all that first jibber-jabbering back to Houston so that the Moon was not as quiet a place as I had imagined it might be. My mother scared easily. She wasn't there when we got to the moon or else Armstrong, with all his Houston talk scared her off before I made it out of the ship. There we were on the Moon. It seems almost unimaginable now, as simple and perfect as a childhood. And as impossible to return to. "Best boy," my mother used to call me with her hair hanging on her shoulders and so now I wait in the movies for the credits to roll. I look for the names of National Space Society members. I look for the best boy in the credits.
Tom stops mid-sentence and says my name. "What do you think? Huh? Mars right?"For a moment I think, "Too bad his movie about Apollo 13 didn't end differently." But then I take the thought back. I like Tom. I like Mars too.
I excuse myself and the young woman at the steno machine records my exit. I take one step and then one giant step for mankind and then I take another and another and another all the way to the men's room. I lower the toilet seat inside the second stall, lock the door and sit down to rest my head against the steel and it feels like home, or at least it feels like the space pod home my wife and I are building.
In the stall I close my eyes and imagine how our journey into outer space will begin. The craft will probably rock and shimmy during lift off. My wife might grab onto my arm or if we are strapped in, chances are we will be strapped in, she'll simply glance over in my general direction. I will mouth the words, "Goodbye Earth," and she'll nod her head and repeat these same words. Perhaps she'll start to cry inside her lady helmet. "Goodbye Earth," she'll say. But sorrow, we'll soon find, will be difficult to maintain on our journey through outer space. "How can you be down where there is no gravity?" I'll ask, ribbing her. And soon we will have passed out of the Earth's atmosphere, out where it no longer has an attractive pull on our ship and we'll see how smooth sailing can be as the Milky Way, Andronmeda and Cassiopeia become brief, bright spots outside our window, specks easily mistaken for a grease smudge or bit of dust on the quadruple-reinforced glass.
Eventually the door to the men's room swings open and I breathe softly and draw my knees up to my chest so that I will be undetected in my stall.
I can see two pairs of feet saddle up to the wall of urinals. There is quiet until one of the men begins to urinate. Tom Hanks speaks, "Come on Hugh, of course it will be me. What do you think? That they'll send Arthur C. Clark into outer space?" Hugh Downs says nothing and there's a moment of no talking. Tom Hanks lets out a laugh, "I'm sorry," he says. "I was just picturing old Art's puppy-eyed face waving from the window of the shuttle. Ha!" he says.
"I mean really. Who would they send? Glenn already got to go. Michael Collins? He stayed on board, for Christ's sake. No one's even heard of him or they think he's the Irish guy in that movie. Denver and Hope Ã¢â‚¬â€ù they're dead and Buzz, well," he laughs. "Ha, Buzz."
Then there is silence. Hugh Downs still says nothing. The two men finish and Tom begins to tell a joke as he's opening the door to leave.
"What'd one astronaut say to the other astronaut?"
It takes Hugh a moment. "I don't know what did one astronaut say to the other astronaut?" The door closes and once again it is quiet.
How would they know? They did not grow up to be astronauts.
The florescent light above me is set to detect motion. It trips off, no motion, no buzz, just darkness. I shut my eyes tightly. I look up and squeeze them closed. I see stars. Movie stars in outer space. That is what's next. I keep my head on the cool wall. Tom is right. That is what's next. No more astronauts, no more teachers but movie stars in space. And I can imagine the speech Tom will give on his return to Earth Ã¢â‚¬â€ù of course Russia and the United States will let Tom Hanks return to Earth Ã¢â‚¬â€ù something like, "And I thought winning a couple of Oscars was great. Gosh."
I roll my head on the cool wall. I'm tired. I have to do something. I have to stop Tom from making outer space into a movie. I'm afraid Hollywood might convince the world that outer space is as real as The Right Stuff or Star Trek. Only as real as An Officer and a Gentleman or one of these video games the kids play nowadays. A thing that's like real but not real. Like this: Once I knew a man with a wife until he saw Sophia Loren in a movie and after that he didn't want anything else. His life was ruined. I think of the wife. I think of the moon. I think of my mother and the best boy holding the boom.
The movies make what is not the movies look bad. I know it because everyday I find things that are not the movies discarded, forgotten, left in dirty alleyways.
In my stall I shift, lowering my legs back down to the ground. I like going to the movies. I like the dark. I have nothing against Tom Hanks and the movies. I shift again and my movement triggers the motion detector. The dome light switches back on. It is like the moon in the movies. That's the problem. It is not very bright. I don't want Tom Hanks to go to outer space. I don't even want him to run for President. I want him to be a movie star.
I step out of the stall. I am going to do something. I look in the mirror. Yes, I am going to do something. I am getting older but I am going to do something.
What am I going to do? I get many answers to that question but never the right one.
"If this were a film," I think, "I'd go strong arm all the movie stars. Collins, Glenn, Lavelle and me. Pow. Pow. PowPowPow. The astronauts would win. If this were a movie the final shot of the film would be my tiny craft re-envisioned as a gorgeous, sleek monstrosity. It would be blasting off to the moon or perhaps even Mars, piloted by me as interpreted by Clint Eastwood or else, maybe if this were a movie then just outside this bathroom door a black hole would be throbbing, anxious to suck me through a wormhole to the year 1969 where I would be played by Ben Affleck where Neil Armstrong (Matt Damon) and I would bounce across the surface of the moon.
I put my hand flat on the door like praying, only one side of the praying. I want to believe that all those endings are possible without special effects.
I went to the moon and now anything can happen. Why doesn't anyone remember that? I glance back into the stall. It is teeming with a universe of invisible microbes. Teeming! Anything, galaxies and galaxies of anything are possible without special effects.For example, I could take Tom Hanks out. He is tall and young but I am an astronaut. I'll be the first one there. She will be waiting for me.
I keep my hand against the door. I can see the black hole. It is just on the other side of this doorway. There it is Ã¢â‚¬â€ù deep space right on the other side of this door. And so I stay this way, with my hand pressed to the door, as if I alone am holding aloft the possibility that children will become spacemen and spacewomen rather than playing them on the television. I stay this way. I press my hand even harder, praying, in case what's beyond this door is just a hallway lit by florescent bulbs, some of which need replacing.