reading room
e-mail us
about us
reading room
               > Wystan Curnow's Place > Regionalism > Autobiography
nav description

The Astronauts: an Autobiography 

World War II interrupted my vocal career. Therefore no action was taken. I don't know why, exactly, because I was supposed to be the brain at that point. What happened? I'm not going to slip off this time. All these questions had to be probed by the computers, and a library  of answers compiled, the appropriate volume could then be snatched off the shelf in time of need, and a month's work could then be applied in a matter of minutes. Sure, Joan spent hours deliriously planning her kitchen. So we had a very comfortable home. We had a little health club with excellent gym facilities right in the building. And I sure as hell had no intention of playing Buck Rogers I just wanted to know if anyone had considered the possibility. If not, one wallowed in agony and self-pity, with the accursed script propped uncomfortably on top of a distended bladder, flipping switches interminably and rejoicing at the glamorous life of an astronaut.

The atmosphere was charged with apprehension, and there was a sense of urgency about getting me out of there quickly before anything happened. The letter was never made public. I will try to explain it. He took it as a personal affront. Chaffee was slumped in his couch. Pretty soon Pat began to quiver and shake and then me. So when we were dumped out in the Nevada desert near Reno one blazing August morning, our job was simply to learn how best to conserve our bodily fluids and how best to signal for help. I'll rate it four spoons, any day. The outside world has already changed perceptibly. Therefore I move slowly, listening to my stomach as I go. Up I glide, miraculously it seems, pulling myself up by my bootstraps. More movement. I have a sort of clarifying sense of uncovering God's plan for my new life here on earth. In the aftermath Time magazine scrapped plans to feature 'the Dissenter' as its Man of the Year' and substituted the three astronauts.

The muffled roar flows through you. There were the voice messages of course. Mary couldn't find a Seventh-Day Adventist church and when she went to the Presbyterian church with me it turned her off. Very fortunately, a Methodist minister, Gus Browning, came by and visited us, so we tried Gus's church and really enjoyed it. He was a down-to-earth man who could preach a good sermon, and he had a good program for the children. He looked at me, I looked at him. It was probably the main justification in Kennedy's mind. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. It was there I learned to compete, to strive to be the best because winners ate turkey and losers ate beans. Yeah. Lift up your right foot. One cannot really appreciate being chigger-free without first sampling chiggers. Glass underwear can be a bit scratchy, and Beta cloth as an outer garment wears out very rapidly, resulting in minute particles of glass floating free throughout the cabin, where they can be inhaled into the lungs. That amuses me, and it amuses her. The so-called kangaroo hop--it does work, but it seems the forward ability is not quite as good as it is in the more conventional one foot after another. I felt my competitive hackles rising. Then I'd sell the coconut from door to door. At last I was leaving the earth. I have a habit of rubbing my thumb against the tip of my index finger whenever my hands are idle. The earth would eventually be so small I could blot it out of the universe simply by holding my thumb up to it. Best I stay clear of it. Days have turned into hours, hours into minutes.

This has its advantages. All the while the clangor of dissent rose in the streets and on the campuses. What is wrong with America? Like most of the key engineers running the project, the bald, pink-faced Rudolph was a Pennemunde veteran. The transplanted Germans tested their V-2 rockets out on the desert at White Sands, New Mexico, and shared their knowledge with army engineers. More garbled alarms. The objective was to create a non-profit missionary foundation that could support and direct my efforts to share my message with people everywhere. New facilities would have to be built. The heart might be weakened by  having too little work to do and might not be able to react properly to the strain of coming back to earth. Most of the activity was concentrated in the so-called 'fertile crescent ' stretching from Florida to Texas. My pastor, Bill Rittenhouse, helped me work out the design of this little corporation, and I named it HIGH FLIGHT  after the title of the poem by John Gillespie McGee, a young Canadian aviator who was killed in World War II.  There was an aura of pioneering and romance about it all. The main instrument panels span the north and south transepts, while the nave is where the center couch used to be. Right foot. Toward me a little bit. Now we need to hook this. I don't need water-cooled underwear because I don’t have any back pack, and because hopefully I won't be working that hard, but I do require a pressure suit, so all three of us struggle into them, helping each other with inaccessible zippers and generally checking the conditions of each other's equipment. From one point of view, they were the most flexible and versatile components of what was perhaps the most complex  technological system ever devised. But they were also in many ways ordinary men, who, despite an extraordinary pyschological  stability, displayed very human foibles of personality. There was an explosion of interest. So I went down there for the physical and for the interviews. Just one big one left, and with the President of the United States there to watch.

It wasn't part of her life. Off she went, leaving a howl of disappointment behind her. At no time did he experience any ill effects. We are developing a tail. Tenuous at first, then thicker and more startling, it glows more brightly, a red and yellow gaseous trail curving off into the lightening sky. I am impressed.  We established radio contact with the swimmers. They say Roger to everything. It would please her  to be somewhere in the country, completely by herself surrounded by animals.  Plenty of room. Alternative would be to open that one too. It was restful work, and as it progresses the atmosphere inside our cabin improves to the point that our crying has stopped completely and, except for a swollen redness about the eyes, John and I are back to normal. He spent his time on serious things. There was not much clowning around . Good.  There were no pictures. She's not a coffee-type girl; she has no time for petty gossip or lady talk. We were outside of ordinary reality; I sense the beginning of some sort of deep change taking place inside of me.  So during the Spring I looked around. You're lined up nicely. She'd shave me,  scrub me up, and wash me all over. She enjoyed doing it, and I enjoyed it. However a visit was not always an easy matter.  Days have turned into hours, and hours into minutes.

About this time I began to major in rocks. I was uncomfortable in that bumpy Texas air. Some were truly unique, such as Meteor Crater, Arizona; and the hole left in the desert by a nuclear explosion at the Mercury, Arizona, test site. Put your left foot to the right a bit. No luck. When we got back to Saigon the next day, I had a meeting with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. How much time to allow, how many times to try, how to balance the safety of two or three up there against entire communities down here. Well, I'm looking head-on at it. He burst into tears. While I was busy with my rounds, Mary and Joy had visited an orphan house and found a little boy that Mary really liked; she said he looked like a football player. I did not have a chance to see him, but I told Mary if she was convinced that was good enough for me. Such was not the case. He walked on stilts, set up a chining bar and did calisthenics.  Do you read me?  I went to the game all right but did my fishing with Marianne. I was physically tired because I had played tennis until I had completely dehydrated myself. Tired, exhausted, hungry, thirsty.  Our heads were swelling . We could feel our faces getting larger, and we could see each other turning red.  The pad crew found the limp bodies of the astronauts. Later I discovered  I had probably  depleted my potassium level and affected my heart by wearing myself out. The female half consisted of a felt-like, loosely-woven, fuzzy surface, and these patches are cemented onto each loose item, at various strategic points. Roger , Houston. It  is amazing how restless everything was. When you dump urine  or water it immediately forms ice crystals. Your humble waste has become a radiance, but this presence interferes with the observations of the stars that we needed for navigation.

My God, the juxtaposition of the incongruous: roll, pitch and yaw; prayers, peace, and tranquillity. With this condition, the impulse for the heart  to contract comes from two sides of the organ at one time, and the heart gets confused. Of course, Al had umbilicals and a tether. It's flat on zero. Higher temperatures.  He did not find any hard bed.  Of course, he was talking to the wrong guy. He is quiet like I am, but very canny and popular. He came unglued. It was never possible to fly up and down, only back and forth across the ring. Do you copy? I've always thought that the only reason I didn’t wash out was because I did not clutch up. Suddenly it happened. I had two broken legs, a broken jaw, and a head injury. I was pined in the wreckage. Finally, I must say that below the threshold of fear for life and limb there lurks a similar emotion, perhaps not fear but at  least apprehension, a worry, not that you are going to be killed, but that you will be terribly embarassed.

Jim Gavlik designed a house with a floor plan that was almost a copy of the layout of our Colorado Springs house, but instead of a fireplace in the middle of the living area we created an art gallery for Mary's paintings. She has natural talent, and she has been painting ever since. It was a relaxed time. Fortunately, Chuck was a patient man who listens. He built a wind tunnel  in the basement of the Armstrongs' clapboard house. That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Then trouble struck. Mary says that the Lord turned her around, and that He pushed her and kicked her all over the place, and she didn't leave. It never occurs to me the ground might not agree. Under the couch was a bundle of wires next to a small door that led to a waste disposal unit. Neil and I prepared to go to the moon.

Two new red cars in the garage. Mary lounged by the pool all day, played cards, and got a terrific suntan. And the others did the same.This I don't need. John is pissed. So underwater simulations were conducted, and the conclusion was that I might have trouble with this task, and then again, I might not. This was a blow to my ego. It seemed ridiculous to spend so much time at sea, for example. It was pitch black now as I cautiously emerge, waist high, turned slightly to my left. The trick was to open the bag so fast that the viscosity or capillary action would encourage the soup to adhere to the plastic. You know, the one that squirts up. The next surprise was not pleasant. Felt like I was going straight up. Where I am slowly comes into view and perspective. Your fanny is violated by the 'steel eel', a painful and undignified process by which one foot of the lower bowel can be examined for cancer or other disease processes. You are going to have to snub that down some place. This time, with no tangential velocity to worry about, I am coming home the easy way, hand over hand on my umbilical, but slowly, to avoid going fast enough to splat up against the side of it when I get there. I was twenty two and I had been waiting a long time. There were four units around the pool.  Being the shortest I had to hold my hose high to keep it from dragging on the ground. Neil winds it up. Unbeknownst to me Joan went to a psychiatrist. It really torqued me off.  He made it as hard as possible. It is a three-dimensional roller-coaster in slow motion, with no noise, no banging around, no hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach.  Maybe she will go away. Who the hell is in charge of this anyway , and why is this broad calling me?  Early one morning in the summer of 1955, I said my goodbyes and headed out of Yuma, driving my apple-green Thunderbird convertible--I had gotten rid of my Kaiser and traded up.  By the time Sexy got abeam of me, the smoke was getting so thick that I was having trouble seeing the instruments, but I could still see that the fire warning lights had not come on.      So far the launch looks good, but somehow it lacks the intimacy of a Titan II launch.

I had no master plan. National security was another reason for Apollo. He was also the rumoured source of Frank Borman's reading from Genesis. Mostly he talked  business.  Anyway, how real was this threat to the planet? We get the word from Joe. The next point to consider was, how close was the sun? On some such occasions, according to Jack Waite, when Colonel Aldrin really relaxed, 'he has some drinks and it oils his mouth real good.' I guess I'm far enough away from 16 now. He drank martinis, sometimes several of them, but with no apparent effects. Say again? He took it as a personal affront. I was now on medication to control the swing of my emotions. Son-of-a-bitch, I am falling off! After dinner, someone suggested that we repair to a local strip joint which was featuring 'Amateur Night'. Aha! Was this the final test of the day?  Which is why we moved into the monastic world of crew quarters. She could choose the subject and her guests. Other than this minor complaint, the place was great--a palace. I was hooked. Finally she started to soften  up and got to the point where she said she was going to give up her faith. It would prove decisive. She said she was going to come and join  my church, that she missed me so much there wasn't anything that she wouldn't do for me. We planned a December wedding. This way we will have plenty of time to get set, and it gives the ground a cheery and chatty interlude.

No lurking terror only smug satisfaction at its familiar clutch, with no lumps, no bumps, no blemishes--an old friend reborn for this occasion. I had become a skeptic about getting guidance from God and I know that I had lost the feeling of His nearness. On the moon the total picture of the power of God and His Son Jesus Christ  became abundantly clear to me. I couldn't tell anyone what I was going to be doing, not even Mary.  As they were solved, they were closed, and I drew a line through that number. For instance 251 means, Please turn your lights on. As each successful command went out, my martini ledger grew and grew, and my right arm got stronger and stronger as my concentration increased. I had to eat, drink, sleep and dream my work--I had to be saturated. Affirmative. There were parades, speeches ,and gold medals. Music sounded better than it usually did. Food tasted better, and so did wine. But I didn't need one, for what the bartender realized was that I was already high, on a five month high. I'm a loner. She's a loner, too.

She had everything: the healthy cheeriness of a college cheerleader, wide cheekbones, a perfect chin, a model's poise, an athlete's trim body. She had blond hair, a turned-up nose, an the sort of  Teutonic good looks that I have always been attracted to. I give them the numbers. I am not the slightest bit worried as I draw closer and closer. I checked into the Rice Hotel as if entering the pearly gates. If Tang was on our flight I was unaware of it. Negative. It looks like a thin scythe, with a wicked hook, two feet in diameter. The parties had themes and an apex of sorts with the Roman toga party.  On their feet were soft bootielike boots. I had to be saturated. Their solid front of shared blame broke. I was to put it on and step in  cement which was later to be bronzed and placed in the entry of the hospital. My sense of orientation vanished abruptly and completely. Roll off latex receiver and remove penis. Mary didn't say much, she let the relatives do the talking. I thought the woman should be there to assist the man, help him in his task. I sat there frozen. No one spoke much and we sat there wrapped in a cocoon of silence and apprehension. Days have turned into hours, hours into minutes. The first landmass I see on earth as we come back are the show-capped mountains of  New Zealand. It's a beautiful sight! This may have been the result of different lighting conditions.

 Earlier version published as ‘Appropriations’  in AND/1, 1983,  rev. 1985