A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon A Star

In honor of Tor.com’s sixth birthday, please enjoy this original rocket story. “A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon a Star”, by Kathleen Ann Goonan, is about the daughter of a rocket scientist in the post 1950s who wants to go to the moon, despite being discouraged because “girls don’t do that.” A novelette that’s science fiction by association.

This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.

“Tomorrow can be a wonderful age. Our scientists today are opening the doors of the Space Age to achievements that will benefit our children and generations to come. The Tomorrowland attractions have been designed to give you an opportunity to participate in adventures that are a living blueprint of our future.” —Walt Disney

 

1901: Walter Elias Disney born.

 H. G. Wells publishes The First Men in the Moon.

 

1903: The Wright brothers make first manned flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky publishes Exploring Space with Devices, a seminal technical text of rocketry.

 

1912: Wernher von Braun, inventor of the V-2 rocket and first director of NASA, born.

 

1914–1919: Robert Goddard granted two US patents for rockets using solid and liquid fuel, and several stages. He fires rockets for US Signal Corps and Army Ordnance at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

 

1920: Timothy Leary born.

 

1921: Chester Thaddeus Hall born.

June Elizabeth Foster born.

           

1923: Hermann Oberth publishes The Rocket into Interplanetary Space.

 

1923: Wernher von Braun receives a telescope as his first communion present. He begins reading science fiction, including Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, and scientific rocket research.

 

1927: Society for Space Travel founded in Germany.

 

1928: Disney releases Steamboat Willie, the world’s first sound-synchronized animated film.

Hermann Oberth is a scientific consultant for Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon. A publicity rocket built by Oberth blows up on the launchpad.

 

1930: American Rocket Society founded in New York City.

Von Braun is an assistant to Willy Ley and Hermann Oberth in launching liquid-fuel rockets.

 

1930–1935: Germans, Russians, and Americans launch a variety of experimental rockets.

 

1936: California Institute of Technology scientists begin testing rockets near Pasadena, California; this is the precursor of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

 

1937: Von Braun joins the Nazi party. His rocket group moves to Peenemünde.

Goddard’s rocket reaches nine thousand feet.

Leningrad, Moscow, and Kazan chosen as test sites for Russian rockets.

 

1940: Disney Studios releases Fantasia.

Von Braun joins the SS.

 

1942: Timothy Leary, acquitted via court-martial for behavior infractions at West Point, receives an honorable discharge.

The US Army moves into Disney’s studio, which produces US propaganda films during the war.     

 

1943: Von Braun begins using concentration camp prisoners as slave labor at the V-2 Mittelwerk plant. Twenty to thirty thousand slave laborers die of starvation, exhaustion, and summary execution under von Braun’s supervision.

Albert Hofmann discovers the psychoactive properties of LSD.

 

1944: Over one thousand V-2 rockets launched against London.

  

1945: Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency accepts the surrender of von Braun, Arthur Rudolph, and other important German scientists. American Army transports over one hundred V-2 rockets from Peenemunde and Nordhousen to White Sands, New Mexico. The Nazi past of the German scientists is expunged from their records, clearing their path to US citizenship.

 

1949: Sandoz Laboratories brings LSD to United States for use in experimental trials.

 

1950: Carol Elizabeth Hall born.

 

1952: Collier’s publishes “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!”, von Braun’s vision of space exploration and settlement.

 

July 17, 1955: Disneyland opens at Anaheim. Ninety million people watch live on television.

 

 

Carol Hall, five years old, is parked in front of the black-and-white television set an hour before the Disneyland grand opening television special is to begin. Chet, her father, a jet propulsion engineer presently at North American Aviation, had wanted to go to the beach that beautiful Sunday, but when Carol had gotten wind of his plan she had thrown herself on the floor, sobbing, “We’ll miss the grand opening!”    

“How did she hear about this all-consuming event?” Chet asks as he rummages in the icebox for olives. Tall and loose limbed, Chet looks good in a suit and tie. His blond hair is cut in a flattop, his eyes are hazel, and he wears the heavy black glasses of his jet-propulsion-engineer tribe. Just now, he wears khaki slacks, sandals, and a short-sleeved sport shirt with the tail out. The windows of their new ranch house are open, and a breeze flows through the kitchen. From the boomerang pattern of the Formica countertop to the Eames chairs in the living room that they found, astonishingly enough, put out in the trash on Sunset Boulevard, the house and the lives of the Halls lean and yearn toward the sunny future and away from the war, the bomb, sacrifice, and uncertainty.

June says, “I think the olives are behind the milk, honey. They’ve been talking about the grand opening on the Disney show for months.” June’s short blond hair falls in soft natural waves around her face. Her eyes are blue, her legs are long, she is tall and beautifully proportioned, and she has a BS in chemical engineering. She and Chet make a nice couple, as they have frequently been told since 1949, when they met and married. She rarely wears her expensive, fashionable suits any longer, but is still a knockout when she does. Carol likes to clunk around in the green snakeskin peep-toed shoes June wore on her honeymoon in Cuba. Now that June is a mother, she mostly wears white Keds.   

“You’re going to miss it!” yells Carol from the living room.

June and Chet settle on the couch, armed with martinis. Though it’s early, they feel fully justified.   

Carol has a glass of milk—with a straw in it that makes it taste, distantly, like strawberries—which is getting warm on the coffee table behind her. She sits cross-legged on green wall-to-wall carpeting, coonskin hat jammed over blond braids. She holds her life-sized rubber bowie knife upright, as if she might be a grizzled frontiersman waiting for a slab of bear meat in a backwoods river tavern, or maybe she’s planning to stab Mike Fink in the gullet. Her knife has a gray blade and a green handle. She is forbidden to stab things with it, but when she thinks no one is looking she does a lot of stabbing—furniture, walls, dirt, trees—all to no avail, since the blade curls up, but it’s still entertaining. She also has a six-shooter cap gun and a holster, but she’s only allowed to play with it outside. It makes real smoke and noise.

She jumps up. “Look! There’s Walt Disney! He’s the train engineer!” 

“Yup,” says Chet. “A man of many talents.” The camera follows a parade down idyllic Main Street. “Oh, boy! It’s Yesterdayland! We’re back in 1900! No world wars.”

“I don’t think there’s a Yesterdayland,” says Carol doubtfully. The camera moves to another live grand opening scene. “Who is that man? He talks funny.”

“Why, it’s good old Heinz Haber. I met him in Germany and saw him at a seminar just last week. Guess you have to have a German accent to get a job with Disney.”

“He’s a physicist, isn’t he?” asks June.

Chet nods. “Eisenhower asked Disney to do a series about space and science last year. Disney Studios has a good reputation—they made a lot of shows for the army and US Treasury during the war. Not that we don’t have brilliant American physicists, but the government is in love with these Nahzees.” He’s pronounced “Nazi” as “Nahzee” ever since he heard it in Churchill’s “blood, sweat, and tears” speech. “Oh, that’s right—none of them were Nahzees. We went to a lot of trouble to get them. Got to show them off to the Russians, I guess. Grabbed them right under their noses.”

June teases, “You’re just jealous you’re not on TV. All of you at the jet lab and NAA.”

“Don’t push it, June.”

June decides not to—in fact, she’s sorry she said a word. Chet had been in the group of Army scientists that tracked down and captured the German scientists (although “captured” is probably not the right word, as the Germans were quite eager to go to America rather than to Russia). When in Germany, Chet saw atrocities that he claimed these German TV scientists knew about, war crimes that they had committed. Technically, he should not even have told her; it was all top secret, completely suppressed by the Office of Strategic Services, which had cleansed their records and made them look as if they were angels.

June takes Chet’s hand. “Sorry, honey.”

He shrugs. “Oh, anything for a laugh.”

Now he’ll be broody. Oh, well.

At the entrance of Tomorrowland, Haber holds a Ping-Pong ball, which represents an atom of uranium, delicately between his thumb and forefinger. “These contain energy,” he says gravely. In front of him stands a table covered with other “atoms” loaded into mousetraps. His son tosses a Ping-Pong ball into their midst, which starts a chain reaction, a wild flurry of snaps and flying white balls, each of which sets off even more traps. Haber holds up a cardboard picture of an atomic pile, which he says will soon provide us with all the energy we will ever need. We will no longer even need hydroelectric dams. It will all be like magic. “Use it wisely,” he admonishes.

This is only a small sample of the show Carol will see on TV a few months later. Ward Kimball, Disney’s right-hand man, using a loose style that is new at the studio, is collaborating with Dr. Haber to create “Our Friend the Atom.” A towering, threatening genie—atomic energy—will emerge from a bottle, arms crossed, while the skinny, hapless man who released him skitters about on the beach, terrified, until he tricks the genie back into the bottle, ensuring that atomic energy will be used in medical applications and for electrical power. Carol will remember the show her entire life, though after the dark twist she will not recall it for years. But the dark twist comes later.   

“Carol, drink your milk or I’ll put it back in the icebox,” says her mother.

“It’s 1986, where a trip to the moon is an everyday event,” announces Art Linkletter ebulliently, as the Rocket to the Moon ride appears on the screen in the world’s first glimpse of Tomorrowland. “In Tomorrowland, you can travel to the moon on the Moonliner. The passenger cabin is in the bottom, between the fins, and you can watch the huge top television screen there to see where you’re going, and the bottom one to see where you’ve been.”

Danny Thomas and his children, including Marlo, the future That Girl, rush with unfeigned eagerness into 1986 (her show will have come and gone by then) and into the Moonliner, welcomed by a shapely stewardess. The ship blasts off, in 1986, and soon the arteries of Anaheim are like tiny diagrams far below.

“Not bad,” admits Chet, grudgingly. “Kind of like a bombing run over Germany.”

Carol is silent for a few minutes, her eyes wide. Finally she says, “I want to go to the moon.”

“So do I. It could be done, but that’s not what would really happen. For one thing, that rocket part would fall off after it boosts the capsule out of the atmosphere, and you’d probably need at least three stages. And then—”

“And then you go to the space station on the way! That’s what the man said.”

“Right. That’s Wernher’s plan.”

“Who’s Wernher?”

“A war criminal.”

June says, “Oh, honey, just let it be.”

“If you’d seen—”

“It’s Sunday,” she says. “Carol is right here.”

He lights a Chesterfield cigarette. Even at this age, Carol knows that it’s his favorite brand. “Okay, okay. How about another martini?”

“It’s definitely a two-martini show,” says June, unwinding her long legs and rising from the couch.

“Chock-full of fun.” He glances longingly at Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night, dog-eared at page ninety-seven, next to him on the end table, but he promised June that he’d watch the show with Carol.

“I want to go to Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Fantasyland,” says Carol.

“Not Adventureland?”

“And Adventureland.”

“That Disney is a real moneymaker. Too bad I can’t get a job with him. But he’s anticomm . . .”

“That’s enough!” June, who has just returned, slams down Chet’s martini on the side table, and it splashes over the edge of the glass. June stalks from the room.

“What’s wrong with Mom?”

“Guess she doesn’t like Walt Disney.” Chet is silent for a moment, then says, “That’s not fair, honey. It’s my fault. I said something wrong.” He follows June.

Carol closes her eyes for a moment as some boring man talks, seeing four little purple tops spinning through space, a distant Earth behind them, and then the strange, multicolored creatures that live on Mars. Her head is always full of pictures. Right now, she is remembering the “Man in Space” show, in which Wernher von Braun narrates his plan for going into space, and the other shows that are about the moon and Mars. The plan uses a space shuttle and a space station. It is a plan that von Braun has worked on for several decades and published in Collier’s magazine in 1952. Of course Carol has not read it, but this is its introduction:

 

By Dr. Wernher von Braun

Technical Director, Army Ordnance, Guided Missile Development Group, Huntsville, Alabama

 

“Scientists and engineers now know how to build a station in space that would circle the earth 1,075 miles up. The job would take 10 years and cost twice as much as the atom bomb. If we do it, we can not only preserve the peace, but we can take a long step toward uniting mankind.”

Collier’s, March 22, 1952

 

The US space program will manifest the German’s plan to the letter, except for actually going to Mars. Perhaps we are not enthused about going once Soviet and US probes show us that Mars is not inhabited by one-eyed creatures, but, at the most, life invisible to the naked eye. What would be the point?

“And now—” says someone on TV.

Carol opens her eyes. Her parents have not returned. She stabs the carpet repeatedly. She stabs her leg. The point of the blade on her thigh makes her taste peanut butter. This doesn’t seem strange to her. She runs to the kitchen, climbs onto a stool, and gets the jar from the cupboard.

 

A few months later, Chet succumbs, as he must, and they are all at Disneyland. At Tomorrowland, in fact.

“Look, Daddy! It’s the Moonliner!” Carol leans forward, pulling on her father’s arm relentlessly, until they are right next to it.

“At least it’s not a Nahzee rocket,” he says, looking at the big red TWA insignia, hands in his pockets. “Except for the fin design.”

June takes Carol’s hand firmly. “Chet, can’t we ever just have some good plain fun?”

“I thought we were.”

“You know what I mean. Why does everything have to be such a dark conspiracy?”

“Because it is? Look around! Germans, Germans, everywhere.”

“GE? TWA?”

“Volkswagen? Krupp? Von Braun?”

“Chet, much as you despise it, we do live in a capitalistic nation. Maybe it’s time you got used to it.”

“Maybe it’s time the land of the free got used to me.”

Carol’s mother blinks fast, and her voice is low. “It’s marvelous how you take it upon yourself to remind me every single day that just because a man is brilliant does not mean he can get along with people. I mean, it’s like you can’t be smart and kind at the same time. Maybe you’d explode if you tried. That would be like igniting liquid oxygen. Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s jet-propelled Chet Hall! Good-bye, Chet! He’s off to a perfect world.”

“You think that’s funny, don’t you? I spent the war fighting these monstrous people.”

“I know, Chet. Don’t raise your voice.”

“And now I’m the one who’s anti-American! Because I believe in human rights and wasn’t afraid to say so!” 

Mothers herd their kids past Chet with sidelong glances. An astronaut with a bubble helmet strides toward him. “Now this death-dealing born-again Nahzee is on TV while I may not even be able to support my wife and kid! He’s not that smart, June. He’s just frigging wily. He follows the money.”

“Sir,” says the astronaut, “would you mind stepping away from the Moonliner?”

“I sure as hell would mind!” shouts Chet.

When things get heated, it’s Carol’s cue to step in.

“I want to go to the moon,” says Carol. She takes her father’s hand. “Daddy, can you please take me to the moon?”

Chet shrugs off the astronaut’s tight grip on his shoulder and swoops her up. “Of course, honey. And do me a favor. Always remember that I love you more than anything in the world.”

“Even more than the moon? The moon’s not in this world, is it?”

“I love you more than anything in the universe. More than anything we know and more than anything we might ever know.”

“I love you too, Daddy.”

How do kids learn to do this?

Years later, recalling this in the Pacific Coast “encounter group” where she is soon to meet her future husband, Carol remembers sticking out her tongue at the astronaut. At least, she thinks she does.

It sounds good, anyway. It sounds the way one would like to have been.

And something else hits Carol as she poaches in the mud pit in the future (though not as far ahead in the future as the Moonliner). She re-hears those desperate words she heard one night through the air-conditioning vent. Her parents never knew she could hear them.

“June, it’s a very good offer.”

“In France.”

“A lot of women would consider this an adventure. Carol could grow up there.”

“And never come back.”

“Come on. Of course she could. Your parents would love to visit France. They could even live with us.”

“I hate to mention it, but you may have noticed that we don’t speak French.”

“I don’t have to know it for the job, but it would be good to learn.”

“You aren’t happy here, Chet. I don’t think you’d be any happier there.”

“I want to be able to support my family. I’m sick and tired of going from job to job.”

“Lay it all out for me. Get guarantees from the government. That at least Carol and I can come back any time we want. And, preferably, you too. I want to know exactly how much money you’ll make. How long the contract is for. I want paid return tickets in my hand before I uproot my family.”

“I don’t know if—”

“That’s right. You don’t know. They may well revoke our passports.”

A sigh. “This is a great country, isn’t it.”

“It’s a country, like any other.”

“That’s not how the story goes. This is an extraordinary country! A magical country!”

“It’s rotten to the core in so many ways.”

“I can hardly believe my ears! My sweet little wife from Kansas just said—”

“But here, there’s the possibility of change. That makes all the difference. People can make changes.”

“Without my top-security clearance, I’ll never be able to work on what I love. What I was born to do.”

“I guess I was born to run a vacuum cleaner.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“What do you think I mean? If you would help out around here I could get a job.”

“A secretarial job.”

“A chemistry degree is not nothing, Chet. I might even land a job somewhere else in the country and we could move there. Oh, that’s right—I did land a job somewhere else, but you wouldn’t leave your precious jet lab.”

“Look, maybe they’d help you find a job you really like in France. Let’s see about that.”

“Would you do that?”

“June? Are you crying?”

“I’m just happy.”

“That makes no sense.”

“I love you. Even though you’re a functional idiot.”

 

1957: October: Soviets launch Sputnik.

December: US Vanguard rocket burns on launchpad, failing to launch first US satellite.

 

One evening when he actually gets home in time for dinner, Chet looks up from his meatloaf and says, “This is an exciting day! Mary Morgan figured out how to fuel von Braun’s Jupiter rocket.”

“Mary Morgan?”

“You remember—at the picnic? Her husband is the one with the bright red hair. Carol played with their little boy. I don’t think Mary finished her degree, but she’s pretty damned smart. Von Braun’s team was completely baffled so they tossed the job over to North American. Mary’s boss was under some pressure because . . .”

“Because Mary’s a woman.”

“Right. And doesn’t have a degree. Had two years of chem engineering, then went to work at Plum Creek making explosives for the war.”

June looks keenly at her husband. “Kind of what I did, for GE. Except I finished my degree. Listen, I’ve been thinking that I might take an evening course at Caltech, if you could watch Carol. I guess I don’t have time for a job until she’s older.” Chet’s mother’s dark prediction of Carol’s utter ruin should June go to work rings in her ears. She thinks it’s hogwash,  but then again . . .

Chet shovels in a forkful of whipped potatoes, nodding. “Mmm. That’s a good idea, except that I have to work late an awful lot. Maybe your sister could watch her?”

Carol remembers the picnic, the little boy, and the man, who smiled at her.

 

Wernher von Braun, at a North American Aviation picnic given to celebrate his rare appearance, sees a little girl and boy tossing a ball back and forth under a cottonwood tree. The boy’s redheaded father says something to him, and the boy and girl look in von Braun’s direction. He smiles and waves. That girl may live on Mars someday, he thinks, as the wife of an engineer. She might live in one of the habitats that he himself designed last month. Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary to iron clothes on Mars? The fine-grained future is beginning to come into focus. Maybe they should include Monsanto’s Kitchen of the Future, the housewife’s dream, in the Mars plan. It would definitely be an attraction for women.

 

January 1958

Chet, working for the Jet Propulsion Lab, helps design the Jupiter-C rocket that will launch Explorer-1, America’s first answer to Sputnik. Chet wrangles passes for his family to view the launch.

They fly to Cape Canaveral, where Chet proudly takes them right up next to the enormous rocket. Mary Sherman Morgan, who had worked at NAA when Chet started there (“But I guess she’s retired to have babies, now.”) developed the fuel for the Jupiter-C rocket after von Braun’s team failed repeatedly. “Mary wanted to name the fuel Bagel, so that we could say that the rocket was fueled by LOX—liquid oxygen—and Bagel, but they have no sense of humor. They’re calling it Hydyne.”

Chet, June, and Carol are allowed into the launch room, with its fascinating dials, meters, and ongoing technical chatter.

As the ground and room and very air vibrate with the power of ignited Hydyne, the rocket separates from the launchpad, borne on a vast slice of fire that slowly—much too slowly, it seems—rises, then hovers, as if it might subside back onto the launchpad, crumple majestically, and explode on national television. Then, as if waking from a deep sleep the rocket gains speed and altitude and is gone, leaving a trail of white vapor.  

At the Atomic Motel in Cocoa Beach that night, Carol writes in her diary, “My soul vibrated too when the Jupiter-C rose from the launchpad and the scaffold fell away. That is not scientific, but that is how it felt. The rocket was in outer space very quickly. When I said I wanted to go into space, and go to Mars like Dr. von Braun plans, the men who heard me laughed, all except my father. He said, ‘Why not?’ They did not seem to know why, exactly, but they seemed sure that I just couldn’t.”

Many years later, Carol reads that when von Braun was asked about women in space, he had responded that 110 pounds of “essential recreational equipment” might eventually be included in space flights. Apparently, that too got a big laugh.

 

1959

During Carol’s summer vacation, Chet takes her to the Jet Propulsion Lab at least once a week so she can “see what goes on there.” On the weekends, they start building rockets. June is enthused about the idea and spends her days thinking about how to present the material to Carol, how to show her the chemistry in very small steps. She loves gathering odds and ends that they’ll need to make the rockets. She begins to think about writing a book for children Carol’s age about rockets. The grandparents think they are crazy.

In general, rockets are simple. Fuel in a tube, a hole through which force can be expelled when the fuel is ignited, a fuse by which to ignite the fuel, a nosecone, and a safe place from which to watch.

If you have anything specific in mind—speed, distance, lift, a payload, a target—then rockets are really complicated. The engineer’s world is not one of airy speculation. It all comes down to what works: test, refine; test, refine. Endless iterations and interlocking of systems until you have something that works. Every time.

They go to a hobby shop that is full of rocket kits.

Some are intricate models. “It’s the Moonliner!” says Carol. “I want that! It’s nuclear powered.”

Chet and June look at each other. June says, “How about a model of a real rocket? Look! Here’s a Jupiter-C, the rocket your father worked on. The one we saw at the Cape.”

Chet sees that Carol is torn. Both are equally important to her. “Let’s get them both. Imagination is just as important as reality. Now, over here are some rockets we can build and launch ourselves. Just to see what they’re like before we start designing our own.”

June could swear she sees Chet take a skip or two when he leaves the store with his shopping bag. They spend happy evenings building the models, and after that, the grandparents get into the act, spoiling Carol with new model rockets every week until her collection would be the envy of any boy. In fact, when she takes it to show-and-tell, it is indeed the envy of all the boys and many of the girls.  

 

Chet takes Carol to the Santa Susana testing grounds in the Simi Valley whenever he has a chance, and twice, to White Sands. He and June help lead her well beyond her math homework; they help her to see geometry and mathematics from different perspectives. When her teacher complains that she is asking too many questions and that she is getting too far ahead, they take her out of public school and enroll her in a Montessori school that has materials that seem to enthrall Chet and June even more than they do Carol.

Chet converts the garden shed in the backyard to a workshop where he can weld and dabble with chemicals. He is in seventh heaven. June loves it too. Carol is not allowed in by herself, and has her own goggles and lab coat. Together, they keep detailed records of the results of their experiments.

It is a halcyon summer of rocket testing. June packs picnic lunches that they eat under a lone cottonwood by a creek up in the yellow hills on the edge of a vast, fenced test range or in a blockhouse with good-natured engineers who converse with Carol as if she were an adult. They ask Chet and June why she knows so much at such a young age. Chet replies that geometry and trigonometry are taught much too late in school, that one has to “strike while the iron is hot” (his favorite homily) when it comes to helping kids pursue their interests in the world, and that one must use tangible objects that kids can manipulate. This always brings a laugh. “Yeah, nothing more tangible than a rocket, Chet—especially when it heads in your direction.” Carol overhears her mother say that Carol is a normal child—well, maybe just a little above average—and that all children would benefit from this approach to learning. “Yeah—if only there were enough rocket scientists to go around.” A general laugh. Carol gets the impression that rocket men are lighthearted people who are always laughing.

 

In September of 1962, Carol’s mother unfolds the newspaper at their sun-drenched breakfast table and reads, “Kennedy Says ‘We Choose to Go to the Moon in this Decade.’”

“By God, I purely love that man,” says Chet, reaching for the Log Cabin syrup. Then he starts coughing. He coughs hard, for a long time.

Carol says, “You have a bad cold, Daddy.”

“Yes,” says her father. “I need to drink more orange juice.”

June jumps up and starts to wash dishes. She washes them very quickly. She rattles them, scrubs them with steel wool, and smacks them into the dish drainer.

 

Chet dies in a car crash on his way back from White Sands in early November 1963. Forever afterward, his and Kennedy’s deaths—their suddenness, the way they divide history, their absolute darkness—are inextricably linked in Carol’s mind.

A force Carol does not understand, but accepts as a part of the unexpected changes in life, like the shock of menstruation (which no one told her was coming—perhaps her mother thought she wouldn’t believe her) blankets her heart and mind for the next few years, a black cloud that she hugs close. It keeps her from volunteering in class, from making the kind of sharp remark she used to make when kids made fun of her. Her mother takes Carol to a therapist, but she rather despises him.

One night, lying awake and staring into the dark, she understands what has happened. She has a somatic vision, a picture that floats above her, of her life as a ribbon in time and space. It is not a flat ribbon. It is an infinitely long cylinder, made up of tiny shapes, sounds, people, events, faces, days that she used to be able to expand and remember. She can see the point where her heart, mind, time, and space—everything—suddenly flattened and twisted into the tiniest thread imaginable, dense and heavy with time, as dark as the void of space. Before the dark twist everything was real, and after it—now—is real, but very different because the twist stops the flow from past to present. The dark twist occludes every glad memory and, according to her grades, everything she’s ever known. She doesn’t care.

June finds a job as an office manager, explaining that they need a little more money now. She gets very, very thin and smokes a lot more.

One night, Carol hears her mother crying at night in her bedroom. She wants to jump up and run into her mother’s bedroom and hug her, but something makes her arms and legs very heavy, so heavy that she can’t get out of bed. After school, Carol has to stay at Aunt Edna’s. Instead of doing homework at Edna’s, she watches the Mickey Mouse Club show every afternoon while her cousin Andy sneers that it is a little kid’s show.

 

Suddenly, June marries Blake Henry, an economics professor at Caltech. Carol has hardly met him, and they are packing all of the things in their house to store in his attic, all of her childhood things, even her rocket collection, because there is no room in his house for them. Actually, they just don’t look right there. Blake’s ex-wife left a house full of fancy old vases, dark furniture that June now polishes once a week, twin boys who are ten years old and a sixteen-year-old girl who tells Carol that her mother “rode off on the back of a Harley with a Hells Angel and isn’t ever coming back.” Despite their similarity in age—Carol is fifteen—they do not become friends, as their parents had surmised they might.

She never hears Blake talk with June the way that June and Chet had talked. All that kind of talk has been folded neatly, put into boxes, and stored in the attic. Now, it really does seem like June was born to run the vacuum cleaner, make Swedish meatballs, and keep the washing machine chugging day and night. One day she overhears Blake say, “You’re not teaching Carol anything about keeping house.”

“Maybe that’s not what she’ll want to do,” June snaps.

She’s right about that.

“Well, don’t expect me to support her.”

“Don’t worry. You know, we might not even be here, Blake.”

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m really sorry.”

 

Something in Carol catches fire and explodes.

It is 1965. Carol shortens her skirts, wears white go-go boots, listens to British rock ’n’ roll, applies heavy black eyeliner and mascara (strictly forbidden by her mother) in the girls’ bathroom at school, and smokes Chesterfields. The teacher in charge of the rocket club tries to prevent her from joining, but Carol’s mother marches into the next meeting and “chews him up one side and down the other,” as she describes it at dinner. The club plans to spend all year designing and building a single rocket for the science fair in the spring, a fairly boring process, as far as Carol is concerned. Three of the rocket club boys, seniors, whose ringleader is Kent, invite her to build bombs with them just for the hell of it.

It seems like a good idea at the time.

They respect her for what she knows, which begins to reemerge from the other side of the dark twist (though a good deal remains there, she learns eventually). It is exhilarating to walk purposefully, wearing jeans and sneakers, after school and on the weekends, through the huge concrete viaducts that lace the interstate junctions, set off explosions, and race to safety, breathless and laughing. It doesn’t seem that anyone in the passing torrent of automobiles ever notices the explosions.

Kent’s father is a chemist, and Kent forges his father’s name on chemical supply orders. They make the bombs in the garage lab he’s had since he was ten years old. One afternoon, as Carol precisely weighs chemicals, she decides that she will characterize this extracurricular activity as one in which she “uses her time in a creative manner.”

But Blake (she calls her stepfather Blake, because it annoys him) notices that she is withdrawing money from her savings account, which contains presents her relatives have given her over the years, and her baby-sitting earnings, and also discovers, somehow, that she has been using it to buy rather odd things at the hardware store. He finds out that it was she who ruined one of his circular saw blades (she meant to replace it but hadn’t had a chance) in his basement shop, which he never uses anyway, and elicits school scuttlebutt from his rat-children, natural-born snitches. He grounds her for a month. She is incensed. It is her money; why should he have anything to do with it?

After a loud argument in which Carol’s mother emphatically does not stand in solidarity with Blake, she knocks on Carol’s bedroom door and sits next to her on her twin bed.

“What do you suggest?”

“I need to get out of here. I’m going to go crazy.”

“There’s no way out but college.”

“I’m only fifteen.” Dreary, bombless, Blake-throttled years stretch ahead, a dark eternity.

“You might as well start now figuring out how to do it and where to go and what you want to do.”

“I want to go to the moon.”

“Might make a good essay, if it included the steps you need to take to get there.”

“Fiction.”

“Don’t be silly,” June says, her voice harsh. “What would your father think? Figure it out. Have you paid any attention to what’s going on with the Apollo program lately? No, I guess you’ve been a little too busy. Come back with a plan—with several plans, actually—and we’ll see what we can do about getting started. Going to the moon will not just happen to you. You have to make it happen.”

“My guidance counselor told me I should plan to be a secretary, nurse, or teacher.”

“Mine did too. And I fulfilled their expectations.”

“Why?”

“Because that was the country’s expectation, that men should have the best jobs, and besides, that’s the way it always was until the war. After the war, the men were back. There weren’t many jobs for women with my qualifications. That’s my excuse, anyway, but it was just the easiest thing to do. You’ve heard about the feminists, haven’t you?”

“Um, yeah. I guess.”

“I suggest you find out more. And Carol?”

“What?”

June lowers her voice. “I understand why Blake’s wife rode off on the back of a Harley.”

At first, they just giggle and snort, but laughter finally explodes from them. They laugh so hard they cry. They subside into weak giggles, but when they look at each other, the laughter builds again. Finally, they fall back on the bed, breathless.

“Is that what you’re going to do?”

“I don’t think so,” says June soberly. “But I could easily change my mind. I’ve certainly thought about it, but I know everything will be fine. If I didn’t, I never would have married him. It was just too sudden, and I’m sorry. You should have been involved in the decision. I didn’t think about it. I just went kind of nuts after your father died.”

 

Blake is even less happy when Carol’s extracurricular activities expand to include feminist marches and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He is hard to please.       

Gradually, the Eames chairs, the modernistic dining room table, and Carol’s rockets emerge from storage. Dark, fusty landscape paintings come down off the wall. As the house is repainted in bright colors, June convinces Blake to “invest” in modern art that reminds Carol of the one-eyed aliens that might live on Mars. A cleaning lady comes once a week. June starts writing Chemistry for Children in a spare bedroom she claims as an office. Sometimes, Blake hums around the house.

Carol still hates him.

 

Carol hears Blake say to June, “By the way, did you hear about that Kent kid?”

“What about him?”

“Blew up his garage. Ran away. The police are looking into it. Aren’t you glad I got Carol out of that before she got in trouble?”

It’s all over school. Kent is hiding out in Crescent City, with a friend who graduated a few years back. He’s not hiding from the police. He’s hiding from his father.

If Carol had been there, he wouldn’t have blown up his garage.

 

Carol takes college-track classes, despite the opposition of her guidance counselor. At first, trig and calculus seem hopeless, an impenetrable foreign language. Her mind is like a rusted machine with frozen bolts. She can’t make head or tails of anything; nothing seems related to what she’d done when she was, supposedly, a brilliant little kid.

 

One afternoon while sitting on the school bus ignoring the chaos, it comes to her: this is just one way of looking at time and space, a way she learned when standing in a different place, with a different view—the view from the house where her rockets hung from the ceiling. It is like learning to take new roads to get to the same place. You see new scenery along the way. She closes her eyes and sees how it all fits together, how to speak these languages. Pictures pace through her mind. It feels so good, like waking after a long sleep.

She smells cigarette smoke, and sees her father’s face, close and dear. He says, “Carol, I have something to tell you . . .”

Someone shakes her shoulder. Angry at being yanked from her father, from what he was going to say, she squinches her eyes firmly shut.

“Hey. Kid. You okay?”

It’s the bus driver.

“Your stop’s about two miles away. I wish I could drive you back, but I got to get home to my own kids.”

The bus is empty. “It’s okay. I can walk.”

It is, in fact, a grand day to walk. How, she wonders, did she hover above the things she used to know and put them together again? She worries that she might lose it all, just as easily. It’s part of the dark twist, along with so many of her memories. Sometimes she can’t even remember what her dad looked like.

She starts to run, to run home, to write down, draw, nail down what she has seen, what she knows, how to think, the new roads that stretch to a new distance.

To the stars.

 

In the summer of 1967, Haight-Ashbury casts its spell across the entire country. In Carol’s neighborhood, kids crowd into any car that can be cadged from unwary parents to make the trip from LA to San Francisco. The Haight’s seductive alternate world beckons, through black light posters (in friend’s bedrooms, not her own), psychedelic music (which she listens to through tiny headphones), and pot (which she smokes with friends), but Carol never fully surrenders to its sensuous siren call. She does choose a young man with whom to have sex, just because it seems so important to everyone and she is curious, but the relationship only lasts a few weeks. He keeps showing up on the front porch, undeterred by Blake, and sits moping in his car in front of the house several nights in a row, but finally gets the picture.  

Carol instead surrenders to the clean power of science and math—possibly because she knows a lot more about both than most people her age. They attract her in ways she cannot really communicate, except that she wants to go further and further into them, there will never be an end to them, they are dependable and real, and they will take her where she wants to go. She finds her father’s thesis in the attic and reads it end to end, working out equations she doesn’t understand. One day June says, “I’m worried about you. You’re so much like your father.”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

Her mother looks as if she’s going to say yes, and maybe, even, say why, but then smiles a bit sadly and says, “Of course not, honey. I guess I just miss him,” gives Carol a surprising hug, and goes off to settle an argument between the twins.

Things seem a lot better now with Blake and June. She hears them having actual conversations. They enjoy watching TV in the evening. They go for little trips up the coast.

Carol hates him.

 

There aren’t many engineering schools that accept women. It is not difficult or expensive to apply to all of them.

 

Carol holds her head high, a dimple in her cheek. She isn’t smiling. The dimple manifests from the effort of suppressing explosive laughter. Miniskirted, carrying a stack of chemistry books, she strides past slamming lockers and tight circles of gossiping girls who glance sidelong at her as she sweeps past them in the hall. She just got the news from her stunned guidance counselor that she received a perfect SAT score in chemistry—one of two in the country—and a near-perfect score in math. She must have made some stupid mistake, which irritates her. From now on, she will be more careful when taking tests.

After fielding offers from Caltech and Georgia Tech, she decides to attend MIT on a full scholarship.

It’s about as far away from California as she can get.

 

The first day at MIT, Carol’s chemistry lab-bench mate asks her out. Eddie’s blond hair skims his shirt collar, and he has cute blue eyes.

They go to a bar on Harvard Square. It’s only eight, but the place is loud and lively. They drink overflowing mugs of beer at a tiny, deeply marred table, and order another round. Carol has a good head for beer, liquor, pot—just about anything, really. Sometimes she thinks it’s kind of a shame; she has to spend so much more to get a decent buzz.

It starts out okay. They talk about their families. They both like Hendrix, but he’s never heard of Pink Floyd or the Velvet Underground. He asks if she always wears jeans, and she says that’s what everybody in California wears. He glances around and she notices that most of the other women in the bar wear preppy-looking skirts and blouses. If she were to wear a skirt, it would be a colorful hippie skirt. She doesn’t mention that she often dances topless at Grateful Dead concerts. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one would talk about on a first date.

She discovers that Eddie would have been a cheap date, if she had been paying.

“So, your dad was a rocket scientist?”

“This is the third time you’ve asked.”

“Well, it just explains everything.”

“Explains what?”

“Why you’re here.”

She slides from her stool and slips her pack onto her shoulder.

“Where are you going? What’s wrong?”

“I doubt you’ll ever figure it out.”     

Burning with anger—she decided not to go to Caltech just because of this issue, because her father had gone there—she pushes her way through the crowded bar and emerges onto the sidewalk.

Most of the people she sees are men. She’s set to go for a nice, long walk to burn off her anger—maybe down to the harbor; maybe to California—when she notices a small, tasteful sign: Harvard Book Shop.

She ducks inside.

Soon, she’s reeling. She couldn’t possibly afford all the books she wants, not by a long shot, not even with her scholarship. Physics, chemistry, rocketry, IBM computer programming . . . a cornucopia.

Then she runs across the women’s studies section. Hmmm. She leaves with an issue of Off Our Backs. She’s seen it around, but never picked it up. She’d been planning to leave all the asshole boys in California behind.

She should have known they were everywhere.

It’s even worse than it seems at first. By the time she leaves for Christmas, two of her professors have asked her “out,” broadly implying that her decision might have something to do with her grades. She feels very lucky that all of her classes cover material not open to interpretation. Answers are right or wrong. She does as much public work at the blackboard as possible, always volunteers to answer questions, and is never caught flat-footed when chosen. In fact, some of her answers seem to awe her classmates, and soon no one asks her out, saving her the trouble of saying no.

She’d learned in high school that no one likes a smart girl. Everyone is smart at MIT, but no smarter than her. They should be her natural peers. Why does being a girl always mean that you have to be tougher than anyone else?

Well, fuck it. When she leaves at Christmas, she’s decided not to go back.

Her mother talks her out of it. She soldiers through her first year, and gets a summer job in a National Science Foundation lab in Bethesda, Maryland.

She gets a call from her mother in early July.

“You’ve got to come home for it, honey.”

She knows what June means.

They have to watch the moon landing together.

 

She flies in on the nineteenth. Her mother meets her on the tarmac, and they hug. Carol is surprised at how much older June looks. Her clothes are kind of . . . dowdy, and they hang on her. She even looks a little bit shorter. But once June starts talking, all that goes away.

Carol says, “Mom, I’m so glad to see you!” 

“Oh, honey, so am I. So am I.” They walk through the parking lot. Everything seems brighter and bigger in California, after the humidity and congestion of Bethesda. “I have a plan. But you can decide. We have an invitation to watch the landing at the Jet Propulsion Lab.”

“Really? That is so cool!”

“Oh, it is. They really want us there, all of your dad’s old friends. We’d have a great day. But here’s my alternative.”

They choose plan B and drive north on the Coast Highway as the sun falls slowly toward the ocean. They pick up vodka, olives, and gin along the way. They also buy three fancy martini glasses and some groceries. June gets a carton of cigarettes. Carol stopped smoking, mostly, the day she graduated high school.

The trip is deeply soothing. Carol realizes that her body memorized the curves of the highway along the base of the hills that plunge into the ocean, perhaps when she was an infant. She rides into the history of her own body, her own mind, curving, wending, leaning, growing younger with each bend of the Coast Highway. The Pacific Ocean is silver behind June, who drives as if hypnotized, smoking one cigarette after another, a faint smile on her face. The lowering sun pours through the open window, a gold and salty tone, turning her mother’s face to a map of dissonant lines that Carol has never heard before. She watches June grow older by the second in the intensifying light, and this new, strange music is difficult to bear

“Mother!” says Carol, and June turns wide blue eyes toward her.

“What, darling?”

“I love you, mother.”

June blinks fast, and shimmering tears overflow. She wipes them from her cheek with the palm of her right hand and smiles. “I love you too, Carol. I love you more than all the moon and stars.”

When the bottom of the sun has just touched the horizon, June pulls into the parking lot of a beachfront motel, the Astro. She comes out of the office with a key for room six. “Your father and I used to come here when we first met,” she says.

They make martinis, which otherwise neither of them drinks, carry them on a walk on the golden beach. They return to the room, and hear that the lunar module, containing Aldrin and Armstrong, is orbiting the moon.

“It seems nearly impossible,” says June, watching the screen.

After the news, they go back to the beach, greeting others out strolling and gazing at the still-virgin moon, all of them charged by the event that they cannot even see that unfolds in the heavens at that very moment.

They meet a woman whose curly hair matches the color of the moon and the surf spray lit by moonlight, standing in a rush of foam that swiftly recedes. She rattles the ice in her glass of Scotch. “My life bridges two eras. I was born in 1888. We rode horses or trains.” She wriggles her feet more deeply into the sand, as if to root herself. “When I was a young woman, I lived right outside Dayton, Ohio. During 1903 and 1904, the Wright brothers made hundreds of test flights from Huffman Prairie, down the road from us. Everybody from miles around would call the neighbors out, and we’d watch those flying machines circle round and round. And now look! They’re flying circles round the moon. I just feel . . . a part of it. Yes, a part of it.” Another wave rushes in, soaking the rooted woman’s dress, but not knocking her down. June and Carol steady her, extricate her, and make sure she returns safely to her family’s room.

On the morning of July 20, 1969, the beach in front of the Astro Motel is full of strollers, sunbathers, and children. June finds a radio station that describes Cocoa Beach as a carnival. The announcer gives them up-to-the-minute reports of “the moon shot” against a background of clattering Teletype machines. They sit on the patio, watching and listening.

When they settle down in front of the black-and-white television, the beach and the road are eerily empty. The parking lot of the Astro Motel is full.

“I’m sorry—I didn’t even think that the Astro might not have a color TV,” says June, but it doesn’t matter. The moon is stark shades of white, gray, black. Space is intensely black.

Everything unfolds beautifully. Both humans and computers compensate for errors; they are flexible and hyperaware. When Aldrin says, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” both of their faces shine with tears. Nestled together on the couch, they raise their martinis to Chet and to all those who made it possible.

The moon landing broadcast lasts only about ten minutes. When it ends, the astronauts prepare for their moon walk, which begins at six thirty in the evening. The second broadcast, in which the astronauts walk on the moon, is three hours long. The fuzzy picture and storms of static immerse Carol in distance, emphasize the technical difficulties overcome by human ingenuity, obliterate a millennium of myth and legend, and fill her mind with a million questions. By the time it is over, Carol is wrung dry. Her chest aches. She doesn’t remember ever being in the grip of such powerful, unrelenting emotions for such a long period of time.

 

The next morning, after Carol has flown back to the East Coast on the red-eye, the capsule splashes down. A picture-perfect engineering triumph.

For one of the first times in her life that she can remember, her heart feels full, as if it is expanding to encompass everyone around her. As she takes the metro bus home, the faces of the others on the bus seem meaningful in a way she does not understand, but accepts. The time she spent with June, without any deep talk at all, satisfied some unknown yearning. It has given her a bass tone, that of the world around her—the suburban streets, the hiss of air brakes, the wheeze of the bus door opening and closing—and a bright fanfare, that sounds like sunlight sifting through leaves and dappling the sidewalk at her bus stop, comprised of everyone going about their morning business, her mother’s increasingly dear face, and the footprint on the moon.

She no longer needs to know why her mother has done the things she has done, has made the decisions she has made, or why she has not ever spoken of them. The dark twist, this morning, does not matter. This side is enough.

It is more than enough.

 

December, 1970

All is monotone: infinite shades of gray, black, white. Silver, ivory, charcoal. Great blue-black rivers of shadow flow down a distant jag-peaked mountain, but then, in an instant, all is obscured by cloud.

Snow closes round Carol, coalescing out of air colder than she has ever experienced. She has never known a wild winter; Boston’s weather is tamed by streets, machines, humans, cozy rooms, ready food.

She is alone in deep nature, a voice that speaks to her in strangely powerful articulations of shape and color, in shards of deep, whirring sound. She pulls her scarf over her numb face and stands still.

Snow on the craggy slopes of the mountain puffs upward like the spray of surf as, nearby, stands of bare cottonwoods roar almost as if they possess a voice, a mind, the urge to sing. The slow, majestic harmony that her mind and eyes modulate is something she has not experienced since she was a child.

She wouldn’t have heard the truck if not for the muffled jingle of its chains. The narrow road is so snowed over that she’s practically forgotten she’s standing on a road. The truck stops next to her and a woman rolls down the window. Wild black hair escapes through gaps in the green scarf wrapped haphazardly round her head and neck. Mittened hands grip the wheel. A mutt sticks its brown head out over her shoulder. “Headed to the lodge?”

Lodge? That sounds expensive. “Hitching. Is there a good place to pitch a tent around here?”

The woman laughs. “Unless you’re trying to set some kind of survival camping record, tonight wouldn’t be the best night for that. Get in. We’ve got plenty of room and lots of food.” She gives Carol an appraising look. “Free.”

“Thanks. I’m Carol.” Carol tosses her backpack in the back of the truck and climbs into the cab. The dog settles on her lap. She has been swept from a possibly spectacular night of immersion in powerful beauty. Or, given her amateur outdoorswoman status, death by hypothermia.

“Heat’s broken. I’m Ishwari. ‘Goddess’ in Hindi. In case you’re interested. I live at the Lama Foundation over there on the mountain—you’ve heard of Baba Ram Dass?”

Carol shakes her head.

“Timothy Leary?”

She laughs. “Yeah.”

“He came through a few months ago and left a huge stash of Owsley acid. Dennis Hopper—”

“The movie Dennis Hopper?”

“That’s the one. He bought the Mabel Dodge Luhan place a few months ago and turned the place into a wild party house. I’m bummed about it. That’s where we’re going. The lodge has a lot of good vibes. When Dodge bought it in the teens, she turned it into an artist colony. D. H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, Gertrude Stein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Carl Jung—all kinds of cross-fertilization. Well, I’m here to try to keep the vibes good. Coke never brings good vibes, y’know? Well, here we are!”

They pass through heavy, wooden gates that stand open, beneath an iron bell set in a graceful adobe surround. She stops next to a snow-swathed entryway. The dog leaps out; Carol retrieves her pack.

Ishwari says, “You can share my room tonight.” Carol follows the woman through a maze of rooms full of people and Ishwari opens the door to an oasis of quiet. A small fire burns in an adobe fireplace. The room is adorned with warm, glowing colors. Carol would like to fall into the low, narrow bed and sleep for a week. She’s been hitching for almost that long. She left MIT in a bit of a huff, unable to find a grope-free mentor, one who would take her own plans and vision seriously. She had a bus ticket, but always travels with a pack that will help her stay self-sufficient in any situation. When the bus broke down outside of Boston, she stuck out her thumb.

And here she is, outside of Taos, New Mexico.

“Is there a phone here?” she asks Ishwari.

“Line’s down. Sorry. Well, let’s join the par-tay! Hope you like tofu chili.”

Ishwari leads her to a large room with another adobe fireplace. Once white, it is now dirty and marred, but beneath all that Carol can see its perfection. She edges close to the fire. About twenty-five people or so are hanging out. Two women sit on a nearby couch, one playing a mandolin and one a flute. The smell of strong pot is in the air. A young man has crashed on the floor in front of the fireplace. Men and women alike are festooned with beads. Some wear spectacular silver and turquoise pieces. Headbands and long hair are ubiquitous, as well as hats. A woman in a fringed leather jacket sits cross-legged on the floor, nursing a baby. Through a large arched door, at a round table, bikers in black leather play poker and drink whiskey.

She is definitely not in Boston anymore. She’s back in the west. She feels comfortable, at home. “Nice scene,” Carol says to the guy standing next to her, warming himself by the fire.

“Toke? Yeah, this is Hopper’s place.”

“I gather it’s gone downhill.”

“I think he plans to restore it. Want a beer?”

Fifteen minutes later, Carol says, “I’m tripping. Right?”

“We all are. Didn’t want you to get left out.”

“In the beer?”

“Yeah.”

She hands it back to him, smiling. “I’ve probably had enough for now. Thanks.”

Carol hasn’t dropped acid very often, and never with a bunch of strangers. Well, except at Grateful Dead concerts. But she feels oddly safe, despite the shotguns on the wall and the bikers in the other room. Well, better to enjoy it than to spend the night trembling under a bed.

She dances, weaving sinuous tracks among the tracks of the others. Some follow her lead. The flute changes rhythm, and she feels simultaneously as if she has joined an ancient dance and that she is observing herself tripping and creating an entirely new dance. She is stomping on the moon; tap-dancing on one of Saturn’s rings, stepping up and down among them as if they were stairs.

She makes her way outside and dances to the cosmos, which sounds like doo-wop, then lies on her back in the comfortable, fluffy snow for an infinity, her mind building rockets to the stars. The clouds have cleared, and she has never seen stars so brilliant.

“Hey.” Someone grabs her hand and pulls her up. “Let’s go see Fantasia.”

She finds her way back to Ishwari’s room, somehow, and grabs her pack. Ishwari looks up from the book she is reading. “Namaste.”

“What?”

“I bow to the divine in you.”

“Thank you! Namaste.”

Two full pickups fishtail out of the drive and make their way slowly, chains jingling, toward town. The few sparkling lights in the distance are Taos. The ride is splendid. They sing “Jingle Bells.” The trucks pull up in front of an old theater and everyone jumps out and troops inside. No one asks for money. Joints make their way across the rows of seats. A white man wearing a feathered hat stands up and says, “We all know Stokowski was a fan of peyote. Took it when he stayed at the Dodge Lodge—participated in religious rites somewhere up in the mountains. Worked with Disney on Fantasia. Old Walt was introduced to it at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, then went down to Mexico—”

The projector clicks on. The music begins. The word Fantasia bends across his chest. “Stop boring us and sit down, Elk Who Fucking Flies, so we can watch the movie!” someone yells.

Carol saw Fantasia on a black-and-white television when she was a kid and she was scared out of her wits by skeletons flying through the sky, by Mickey’s terrifying, brainless, out-of-control replicating brooms.

This time, she loves the dancing mushrooms. Peyote mushrooms, of course. The delicate dancing faceless flowers. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” might be an old story, but it is breathtakingly of the present: robots, and how they might be able to re-create themselves and mindlessly conquer the world.

When Fantasia is over, with nary a break, the projectionist threads Disney’s Man in Space series: “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon,” and “Mars and Beyond.”

She saw this long, long ago, sitting in her living room in front of a black-and-white TV. When a child but this long-ago, almost fantastic vision is now real. Men have walked on the moon using von Braun’s blueprint to get there.

It is all rather breathtaking.

Her father’s arch nemesis, von Braun, explains rockets, as well as a plan to reach the moon and Mars, in his German-accented voice. An entire generation of kids have this in their brains. And, apparently, a generation of adults as well, because of his Collier’s article and other publicity.

Without this, would the nation have supported Kennedy’s declaration that the United States would put a man on the moon before the decade’s end? The technical know-how had been there—it had just been a matter of committing money.

And of educating kids.

Why, she wonders, with a lump in her throat, has she been sidelined at MIT? Why did she allow it to happen?

Suddenly, she stands and shouts, “It’s because of all these men on the moon! Where are the women?” 

“Yeah!” yell some women, and then the ragtag group rises as one and cheers as wildly as if they had all been offered a free Mars bar. “Where! Are! The! Women! Where! Are! The! Women!” Ward Kimball’s Mars aliens, gawky, puzzled-looking creatures, play across their faces, imprinting them squarely with mid-century America, with its mutant tomatoes, big-finned flying cars, crumpling rockets collapsing in clouds of fire and smoke, a roomful of Ping-Pong balls released by mousetraps, an enormous genie bursting out of a tiny bottle, the secrets of the universe theirs to use and abuse.

And a ticket out of it.

“Here, dammit!” yells Carol, as cool flat spaceships that look like tops twirl neatly across their faces. “I’m here! I’m a goddamn rocket woman and that’s all there is to it! I’m gonna go back to MIT and kick their butts.”

“Whooo! Yeeeeehaw! Take us along! To the moon, Alice!”  

Carol hoists her pack and leaves, grabbing a bag of stale popcorn in the lobby, still mildly tripping, and holds out her thumb as Christmas day dawns in mountain time, pale pink and green, electric blue mountains rimming the horizon. An old man in a pickup truck pulls over. When she gets in, he says, “Kin take you as far as Albuquerque. Now, you ain’t no whore, are you?” 

“Afraid not,” she says, settling in. The day dazzles. Snowy fields are etched with long blue dawn-flung shadows; distant mountains ring that same white and blue, in a deeper tone, with bare brown ridges. The land gives forth harmonies not only to her eye, but to her ear, a deep and pleasing music.

“Good. My wife would pitch a fit if she knew I gave a ride to a whore.”

“I wouldn’t blame her. You’re not some kind of pervert, are you?” 

“No, ma’am. And please pardon my previous question. I apologize.”        

She’d run into her fair share of creeps, and thought she could tell. But in case she made a mistake, she always kept a switchblade handy, and knew how to use it.

“Apology accepted. Got a cigarette?” 

“And coffee in that thermos there. You’re one a them hippies, I guess.”

“Kind of. But not really. I’m a rocket scientist.”

“I’d think you’d be able to buy your own truck then.”

She laughs. She feels light, free, happy.

Strong.

They cross a dizzyingly high bridge. “Rio Grande Gorge. River way, way down there. One of the prettiest sights around in the prettiest spot in the country. You stayin’ out at the Dodge place?”

“Just got there last night. I’m on my way to White Sands.”

The descent to Albuquerque is through a long, stunning canyon that dips below the high plateau she’s been on for several days.

The ghost of her father sits at her elbow, smiling at her. He really is—his blond hair in a flattop, his black engineer glasses, his thin, mobile face, with laugh crow’s-feet around his blue eyes. He gives her a thumbs-up.

She doesn’t know she’s crying until the old man pats her shoulder. “There, there.”

She takes a deep breath. “I’m just happy.”

Even though she knows it was the acid, remembering this always makes her happy.

 

She calls her mother from an Albuquerque phone booth. “Merry Christmas!” she says.

It’s Blake. “Where are you? Your mother is worried sick!”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “My bus broke down, I hitchhiked to Taos—”

“Well, you get yourself home right away!”

“Where’s Mom?”

“She’s at your Aunt Edna’s.”

“I’m going to White Sands tomorrow, but I should be home by the next night.”

“You are a very selfish young lady, Carol.”

“Merry Christmas, Blake.”

She sits on a bench for a few minutes afterward. She finds her way to the bus station and discovers that the last bus west has left.

There is no point in spending the night in the bus station.

 

Close to Las Cruces, she gets a ride up to the White Sands Missile Range with a navy guy who is on guard duty that night. “It’s closed Christmas,” he says. “Where do you plan to stay, anyway?”

“I’ll just set up my tent somewhere on the perimeter. Maybe on some high place. Got any suggestions?”

“Well—”

“My dad worked there sometimes, in the fifties. He actually worked for the Jet Propulsion Lab and came out here to test rocket engines. He brought me with him a few times when I was little.”

“No kidding!”

“He died in ’63. I just kind of wanted to see it again. I’m studying at MIT right now, on my way home to California.”

“You’re still an Army dependent, right?”

“Yeah. I’ve got my ID with me. It’s a great thing. I get insurance, the Army helps pay for my education.”

“Right.” He smokes for a few minutes. “Well, look. I think it would be okay to let you sleep in the barracks tonight. Then I could get somebody to give you a ride out to the test site tomorrow. I don’t think anything’s scheduled, but I guess you just want to look around, right?”

“You’re kidding! Really? That would be fantastic!”

“Might even be able to scare up somebody who knew your dad. What was his name?”

“Chet. Chester Thaddeus Hall.” She laughs. “He hated his middle name. Listen, I don’t want to get anybody in trouble.”

“I’ll check it out, but I think the ID will make it okay. Besides, if it weren’t Christmas, you wouldn’t have a problem. It’s not as if you’d be going anywhere classified.”

 

The next day, Carol stands on the dunes, visits the blockhouse, hears the ghostly laughter of those engineers, amused that she knows so much, amused that she is even here on their sacred male ground. The sky above is clear and blue, a perfect test day. She remembers their careful measurements, the record sheets, the calculations.

Rocketry is in her blood.

I’m here, dammit. And I’m here to stay.

                       

When she finally gets home, she tells her mother she is transferring to Caltech. June’s eyes light up. “Oh, honey, that’s wonderful.” She gives Carol a tight hug, and her thin arms feel like bird’s wings. Carol steps back. “Mom, are you okay?”

“Sit down.”

Blake sits next to June on the couch and holds her hand as she talks. She has had one breast removed, but now she is recovering. Everything is going well.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to interrupt your studies.”

“I’m not going back.”

“Just finish out the year, and then—”

“What for? I’ll fly back, get everything taken care of, find someone to take over the lease, withdraw from school—”

“But it will take time to apply to Caltech. You won’t be able to start this semester. What are you going to do?”

“Spend time with you, Mom. I can take you to the doctor, we can go for drives, play bridge—you know. All that.”

“Well, it would be nice. But I feel so selfish.”

“I feel absolutely delighted.”

 

June lied, of course. She is not recovering.   

They spend two strange, luminous months in suspended time. Carol drives her up the old roads, and it often seems that Chet is there between them, like some kind of phenomenon in which intersecting waves create meaningful data.

 

She finally asks, “What happened to Dad? Really?”

Her mother is lying on the sofa in the living room. “There’s a box on the top shelf of my closet. Get it for me, please.” Her very short hair is white, and her voice is hoarse. If Carol takes time to think about what’s happening, she cries, so she tries her best to just be there and enjoy this time.

“Put it on the coffee table and open it up.”

On top are a lot of old pictures. Some are black and white, with scalloped edges. She is in some of them, and there are various configurations of family in most of them. “You remember your grandpa Hall, right? You should really go see him sometime. He’s still in Pennsylvania. Did you know he was a Communist during the 1930s?”

“Of course not. Who would tell me?”

“Families are funny. Aunt Edna might have said something.”

Carol shakes her head. “What does this have to do with Dad?”

“Your grandpa helped lead several miner’s strikes. At that time, the Communist Party was widely accepted as progressive. It was about worker’s rights. We didn’t really know how terrible conditions in the Soviet Union had become. Certainly, being a member of the party wasn’t looked on as being un-American. They called themselves patriots. They felt that they were being exploited by wealthy industries, and they were. Your father’s big brother—”

“Uncle Mike.” The mythical, perfect brother who died in the war.

“Yes. He was a deep believer. I think your father just followed in his footsteps. But in 1939, they both dropped their memberships and moved on with their engineering education. I think this broke your grandfather’s heart.

“Except for that, all was well and good. But after the war, when your father got his master’s degree at Caltech, he found it was a hotbed of Communist activity. He had never disavowed the ideals of the party, but he wasn’t interested in the secretive, regimented way they conducted their business. Anyway, someone from Pennsylvania recognized him and pressured him to rejoin. Your father refused, and so this man reported him as a past member of the Communist Party. Which was true. And even though it had been so long since he was involved in it, he eventually lost his very high security clearance. North American Aviation hated to let him go, but they had no choice. Everyone in the industry knew your father, knew what had happened, thought it terribly unfair, and gave him work. But it was piecemeal work. Your father felt that he couldn’t contribute what he was capable of contributing if he didn’t know everything there was to know about a project. He was offered some fabulous jobs outside of the country.”

“I know.”

June looks at her and smiles. “I don’t think so. How would you know? You were so little.”

“You never told me?”

“I doubt it.”

“Well . . . I don’t know how I know. I just do.”

“Ah, well. Afterward, I thought . . . well, it didn’t make any difference by then, but I thought I should have agreed to go. I imagine I would have if he hadn’t gotten sick. Being treated like an untrustworthy outsider hurt him very deeply.” She looks down. “I regret so many things.”

“Don’t!” 

June says, “I’m not sure what happened. Why his car ran off the road. But I think he was just tired. So dreadfully tired. From sickness, from working so hard, from sadness at being pushed out . . . I . . . I have to believe this. But I also think it’s true.”

After her mother dies, Carol is going through her effects and finds Learn Conversational French in Ten Days. Inside is a receipt for a beginner’s night class in French. There is also a receipt for a refund ten days later. Between those two dates, her father had died.

Accident? Or suicide?

Does it matter?

Carol weighs the fragile evidence of the hard, sad, heavy bones of her family’s past in one palm. She holds the two receipts up, like an offering, and the spring breeze ruffling the curtains pushes them straight up into the air, as if launching past and future together into space.

 

San Fernando Chronicle

January 24, 2000

Carol Hall, who received her PhD in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, will spend sixty days on the International Space Station to set up and monitor a device that may make travel to Mars easier. “It’s the dream of a lifetime,” she said. Her husband of twenty-five years, Hank Thaxton, agrees. “The kids and I—and our one grandchild—are just thrilled for her.” When asked what she will take with her, she says, “That’s easy—a plastic model of the Jupiter-C rocket that my father, Chet Hall, helped design in the 1950s while at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. He helped me build the model, and our family saw the actual launch at Cape Canaveral in 1958. I guess you could say that space is in my blood.”

She does not mention the more private thing she is taking—her father’s Communist Party membership card.

She lets it go in space, where, as far as she knows, it is still orbiting the Earth.    

 

Those old Disney shows, much as they irritated her father, are like an anthem of her life. She watches them occasionally, when her grandchildren ask for them. “Man in Space.” “Mars and Beyond.” The story of her parents’ lives, her life, her country’s life. The political dark and light of it, inextricably intertwined in war, in peace, in human frailty, and in human dreams.

It is the world’s life, now. The wonders, the possibilities, the hardships continue to expand. The dark twist has long since popped open. Images, conversations, music—her childhood, like a disk of information sent in a spaceship for aliens to wonder over—have come forth whole, like clear, bright watercolors, like delicate, unearthly sound, like a sweet, remembered smile.

Like a star once wished upon.

 

“A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon a Star” Copyright © 2014 by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Art copyright © 2014 by Wesley Allsbrook

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