Tuesday, February 3, 2009

To Mars

This thought struck me today, as I sat in my gray little cubicle in the dumpy little trailer way out in the middle of the Lost River Desert, buried in snow and hoping for a glimpse through the copier room window of the rabbits that live underneath our trailer:

I want to go to Mars.

I've been to Mars, of course, thanks to Ray Bradbury and a little thing he calls R is for Rocket. First read the book years ago and was most struck by "The Rocket," a story Bradbury wrote of another man's longing to walk on the surface of the Red Planet. Unable to afford tickets to Mars, (mankind first landed on the planet 70 years before) he builds is own rocket ship from a mockup rocket and takes his children on a trip:

"Listen, keep your ears clean [says the father, Fiorello Bodoni]. Smell the smells of a rocket. Feel. Remember. So when you return you will talk of it all the rest of your lives."

"Yes, Papa."

The ship was quiet as a stopped clock. The airlock hissed shut behind them. He strapped them all, like tiny mummies, into rubber hammocks. 'Ready?" he called.

"Ready!" all replied.

"Blast-off!" He jerked ten switches. The rocket thundered and leaped. The children danced in their hammocks, screaming. "We're moving! We're off! Look!"

"Here comes the Moon!"

The Moon dreamed by. Meteors broke into fireworks. Time flowed away in a serpentine of gas. The children shouted. Released from their hammocks, hours later, they peered from the ports. "There's Earth!" "There's Mars!"

The rocket dropped pink petals of fire while the hour dials spun; the child eyes dropped shut. At last they hung like drunken moths in their cocoon hammocks.

"Good," whispered Bodoni, alone.

He tiptoed from the control room to stand for a long moment, fearful, at the airlock door.

He pressed a button. The airlock door swung wide. He stepped out. Into space? Into inky tides of meteor and gaseous torch? Into swift mileages and infinite dimensions?

No. Bodoni smiled.

All about the quivering rocket lay the junkyard.

Rusting, unchanged, there stood the padlocked junkyard gate, the little silent house by the river, the kitchen window lighted, and the river going down to the same sea. And in the center of the junkyard, manufacturing a magic cream, lay the quivering, purring rocket. Shaking and roaring, bouncing the netted children like flies in a web.

Maria stood in the kitchen window.

He waved to her and smiled.

He could not see if she waved or not. A small wave, perhaps. A small smile.

The sun was rising.

Bodoni withdrew hastily into the rocket. Silence. All still slept. He breathed easily. Tying himself into a hammock, he closed his eyes. To himself he prayed, Oh, let nothing happen to the illusion of the next six days. Let all of space come and go, and red Mars some up under our ship, and the moons of Mars, and let there be no flaws in the color film. Let there be three dimensions; let nothing go wrong with the hidden mirrors and screens that mold the fine illusion. Let time pass without crisis.

He awoke.

Red Mars floated near the rocket.

"Papa!" The children thrashed to be free.

Bodoni looked and saw red Mars and it was good and there was no flaw in it and he was very happy.

At sunset on the seventh day the rocket stopped shuddering.

"We are home," said Bodoni.

They walked across the junkyard from the open door of the rocket, their blood singing, their faces glowing. Perhaps they knew what he had done. Perhaps they guessed his wonderful magic trick. But if they knew, fi they guessed, they never said. Now they only laughed and ran.

"I have ham and eggs for all of you," said Maria, at the kitchen door.

"Mama, Mama, you should have come, to see it, to see Mars, Mama, and meteors, and everything!"

"Yes," she said.

At bedtime, the children gathered before Bodoni. "We want to thank you, Papa."

"It was nothing."

"We will remember it for always, papa. We will never forget."

Very late in the night Bodoni opened his eyes. He sensed that his wife was lying beside him, watching him. She did not move for a very long time, and then suddenly she kissed his cheeks and his forehead. "What's this?" he cried.

"You're the best father in the world," she whispered.


"Now I see," she said. "Now I understand."

She lay back and closed her eyes, holding his hand. "Is it a very lovely journey?" she asked.

"Yes," he said.

"Perhaps," she said, "perhaps, some night, you might take me on just a little trip, do you think?"

"Just a little one, perhaps," he said.

"Thank you," she said. "Good night."

"Good night," said Fiorello Bodoni.

Yes, a sham. But not a sham. The family of Fiorello Bodoni believed they flew to Mars. Thus, they flew to Mars.

I want to go to Mars. I want to walk on the surface of that distant red planet, crawl down into the bowl of a crater, pick up handfuls of Martian sand. The dream is not dead. The technology is not outside our grasp. There are those who wonder why bother sending a man to Mars, when robots can go and be safer, less expensive. I say, the Bodoni children went to Mars. I want to go, too.

Where can I take my children, how can I take them on trips they will never forget? They're growing up so quickly. I haven't taken them to Mars yet. We need to go. It's not too late. I need to build a rocket ship. And I need to take my wife, too.

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