The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman
--For Larry Johnson, Mississippi's first star-poet, who watched with me one afternoon in Arkansas the airplane creatures of another and watery dimension.
When I was a child, I wanted badly to be a spaceman. This was before the government took over and called them astronauts.
I was the last child born before television. I used to listen to "Spaaaaaaaace Puh-trol" on the radio. That radio was the size of a jukebox. It had flanged, rounded cones for knobs, and its interior glowed more strangely than fireflies. I did not know what lay behind the fabric of its speaker, what impenetrable mystery.
I was probably the only kid in Enon, Louisiana, who wanted to be a spaceman. This was before Sputnik.
I invented Enon, Louisiana's first, last, and only Secret Squadron Chapter, and flunked the physical I thought up.
Everywhere I went I would start a club. We were going to the moon. I drew rockets in class, rounded cones with flanges, I filled their outlines with blunt-cornered squares labeled "Fuel" and "Oxygen."
I figured it would take a million dollars.
We were going to get the money from La Tourneau, another mystery, who lived in Vicksburg and tithed, according to Southern Baptist legend, not one-, but nine-tenths of his millions. I figured I could talk him into it.
None of it happened.
There's no way you could believe how serious I was.
I used to lie on the hood of the car after prayer-meeting staring at up at the stars while grown-ups chatted under the pole-light, my back warm from the engine, imagining everything upside-down, hanging by my skin over deep galaxies, longing to roll and see them under me as well.
The stars are not decoration: They are love.
I wanted so badly to be a spaceman.
I became a Christian by accident at six—I’d only stood to ask if this was the invitation, but they thought I was coming forward, and then I saw my mother weeping in terrible relief and they were shaking my hand, and it felt good to be congratulated for my moral courage, so I kept quiet. All this in a revival in a shotgun shack of weathered rough-cut lumber in a cotton field.
How can I tell you what happened to my religion when the robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still lifted his master in a gesture like the Pieta and took him back to the flying saucer and brought him back to life?
So, science-fiction and scripture, straight A's and daydreams in the red-dirt hills and the Delta, the strange, deflected resultant of desire: These led me inexorably to broken song, the musical names of the constellations.
I'd thought I was science-minded because in the fourth grade I shaped from modelling clay, the sort given at Christmas, four ingots like quarter-pound sticks of butter, one red, one blue, one green, and one yellow, the best Tyrannosaurus Rex. He was green outside because green in Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia—but transected, what swirl, what rainbow!
True, after a myriad revisions, the whole went brown as the threat of entropy—the act that made the rainbows eventually unmade their possibility.
And so it was the poetry that stirred me, the wonder of science, and the numbers and formulae meant no more to me than the band of numbers on the radio, though many of them are still with me—MM'/d2, for example, an allegory for love, as Heinlein had a character say in a little paperback called Universe, with Joe-Jim the two-headed mutant rampant on the cover.
The numbers and formulae, I repeat, were only arcane jargon, and I gradually discovered, blaming myself horribly, that I would never be a scientist, and still more gradually admitted it to the world. Neither will I live on a plantation again or write the fiction that Faulkner wrote.
I am doomed to envy the root-eloquence of farmers, the dumb luck of those trowel-tongued test pilots who first tracked up the moon.
And yet, this very evening, swimming at B. A. Steinhagen Lake, the sun like a ball of blood dropping, the rose, the cerulean, the auric, and just plain green tints rippling and mingling where my stroke broke water, the air all smoke and distance, a barrage of bubbles trailing up like pearls to trouble my face from the cleft between thumb and forefinger of each hand as each dove into the blurred green depths like a man falling from orbit . . .
Once as I rolled for breath from that underworld there bulked on the swell of my passage the bulbed silhouette of a free-floating clump of water-hyacinth, like a piratical alien ship flagged with aleph and zed and hove to . . .
And in that moment I knew that it was such a ship, that all seed is such cargo, that all journeys occur in a dangerous lovely world with no bottom, that I am and have always been a traveller among and a poet of stars.
--Originally publsihed in New Orleans Review