Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Up Early

Got up at 4 am today for some reason. Could have been the wind banging the loose downspout on the corner of the house or the furballs barking at every gust against the shrink-wrap storm windows. Could also be that it's still weird to kick around this old place alone. The creaks and shudders of the big barn sound a lot bigger when there's nobody here but the four-leggers and me. Someday I think the moaning and groaning will end and the place will just fall over from exhaustion. One of these days when the west wind hits the kitchen wall there'll be a crash and a pile of wreckage but so far, it's still hanging in there. I myself crashed pretty early last night (without the wreckage) just because there wasn't much of anything else really constructive to do and besides, it seemed like a good night to finish an old book I was re-reading for the umpteenth time.

I usually have a book or two stashed on the nightstand or one propped open on the floor where I dropped it when I rolled over to kill the light. I can't stand TV at night (or much of any other time really) but to dig down in the covers and read a while usually unwinds most of the leftover insanity from the day and gets my lids heavy enough to conk out.

I've been chewing away on a long-ago book club selection that was looking kind of dusty and neglected on the shelf. I hate to see them in that state so I picked it up. Even the paper jacket went missing somewhere along the line so it's just a plain, black cover with 'Prelude To Mars' and 'Arthur C. Clarke' in used-to-be silver lettering on the spine. It's an old sci-fi omnibus made up of a couple of novels and a section of short stories sandwiched in the middle that was mostly written in the late '40s and early '50s. I think I got it when I was in Junior High because it has that goofy looking loopy signature I used back then on the title page.'s interesting to read again and look at the way they saw things back then before dot.coms and derivatives. Nuclear power was still new and wonderful, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound...that kind of thing. Clarke talks about a miles-long launching track for atomic rockets across the Australian desert and how we would be happily lighting off radioactives in the upper atmosphere. Quaint in it's own way but not exactly how things really went. It's like a snapshot of the time to read his take on how the 'conquest of space' would take place; a private enterprise based in London, launching from Australia with mostly British leaders. The future in 1947 had us jetting between continents on huge airliners (which worked out), running a space program with it's first stop as the moon on a nuclear powered rocket (which didn't), and still broadcasting it over the radio and the morning papers (hmmm). And in the end, merry old England sort of missed out on most of it.

Clarke's description of the offices of 'Interplanetary' in London is a hoot. It's just plain fun to read about a place bustling with typists and mimeograph machines, engineers with slide rules; not a laptop or Blackberry in sight, astronauts doing orbital calculations with paper and pencil while nursing a brandy and listening to a 'light orchestra with soprano'. I guess 'The Right Stuff' was still a ways off.

It all looked so hopeful through old Arthur's eyes back then. The book is full of those uplifting 'we're all in this together' moments that I suppose were the post-WWII, pre-Cold War way of seeing the future. Mars was a real possibility before the turn of the century to him and the moon was just a hop and a skip for those big atomic rockets. Too bad it went a little bit differently in the real world. First there was Sputnik, then Yuri Gagarin, then all the Mercuries, Geminis and Apollos that I watched in black and white. A few footprints on the moon and we never stayed long enough to call it much more than a fare-thee-well.

I actually remember being very much younger, sitting on the steps of the old empty church behind my house looking up at the sky and wondering. We sat out there and looked at the stars on summer nights and dreamed of rockets. I figured out that I'd be 40 years old in the year 2000 and at the time, I couldn't help but imagine I or a whole bunch of others like me would be living up there by now. It seemed so promising. Now I'm 50, 2000 came and went in the Y2K scare and we still haven't even been back to the say nothing of Mars. Even living in orbit is reserved for a select few zillionaires willing to pay the Russians for a seat on a Soyuz or U.S. astronauts and payload specialists with a ticket on the shuttle. It just didn't play out the way old A.C. Clarke envisioned it...but then forecasting is a risky business even for weathermen. It very often doesn't go the way we thought it might but it's always pretty interesting no matter what. I never made it into being an astronaut and I guess I'm probably a permanent fixture on the ground but thanks to my friends like Arthur, I can still see the way things might have been. In a lot of ways, I guess I'm still looking up from the front steps of that unused white church...and hoping.

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