The Fourth Man

Monday, July 16, 2012

It means nothing to me. I have no opinion about it, and I don’t care.

Pablo Picasso, on news of the first moon landing, quoted in the New York Times, July 21, 1969


When the first man came back from the moon everyone in America threw him a parade. There were forty-two parades in total. All of the women wanted to have his babies. All of the men wanted to shake his hand.



The second man sat in the backs of red convertibles with the first man. They wore gold medals around their necks and went from parade to parade smiling and wiping confetti from their hair.



Four months later, when the third man stepped out of his shuttle he was lifted onto the shoulders of his colleagues. NASA rocket scientists who had never carried anything heavier than decimal points lifted him above their heads and carried him into decontamination. When he got out, Tom Wolfe wrote a book about him. He never paid for a beer again.



When the fourth man emerged from the spaceship he was greeted by no one. He stood at the top of the metal staircase and watched the NASA rocket scientists carry the third man away. He unclasped his helmet and stepped aside for the NASA janitors, who were already pushing their buckets into the rocket, eager to clean up the mess that he and the third man had made while in space.


But it was always like this for the fourth man. Even when he was a child, he finished second to the mess. The fourth man’s father worked for the Army Corps of Engineers and every year moved his family around the country so that he could build dams and prevent flooding.

Every year the fourth man lived near a river that

  • had flooded
  • was flooding
  • was about to flood



In 1936, the fourth man’s father moved the family to Fort Worth, Texas. That year the fourth man was four and the Brazos River crested at fifty-six feet. While his father smoked cigarettes and cursed his dam, and his mother filled sandbags, the fourth man raced toy boats in the floodwater that submerged his back yard. The first boat tipped over in an eddy, but the second sailed out of the yard and into the cow pastures. Even now the fourth man could remember how smoothly its white sails ducked underneath the split-rail fence and receded toward the horizon and disappeared.



The picture on the fourth man’s Apollo Mission flight patch was of a boat sailing across the face of the moon. The boat had full white sails, dragged a trail of fire, and was modeled after Columbus’s Pinta. Though the Pinta was not the first boat to reach the New World, it was widely thought to be Columbus’s favorite.



After his lunar module had touched down on the moon’s surface, the fourth man prepared to read his statement. He was especially proud that he’d managed to work in the words that Columbus himself had inscribed on the bows of all his ships: “Following the light of the sun we left the Old World behind.” But once the contact light flashed blue and the module settled into the dirt, the third man flipped the switch on the radio and casually uttered the words that all of the TV stations would choose to replay. “Man,” said the third man, “that might have been a small one for Neil, but it was a long one for me.”


When the US entered World War II, the fourth man’s father enlisted to join the Army Air Corps. The newspapers were full of pictures of fighter pilots flying, fighting, and smiling overseas. But when the fourth man’s father went to the recruiting station, he learned that at thirty-five he was already too old to become a fighter pilot. He had to join the infantry instead. The fourth man’s father spent the next five years in Europe, boots in the dirt, fighting the war.



Was this the reason why the fourth man had become a pilot? Because his father could not? People sometimes asked him this. When they did the fourth man would laugh and tell them that there was nothing competitive about his relationship with his father. He’d say that he’d always loved airplanes and anything to do with flying. Even as a child he’d loved Buck Rogers, Twelve O’Clock High, bald eagles, and kites. He hadn’t become a pilot, he’d say. He’d been a pilot all his life.



On the day the fourth man’s father drove away to basic training, the fourth man stood at the top of the driveway and waved after his father’s Chevy Cruiser. A steady wind pushed the smell of grass across the plains, and the fourth man continued waving long after the black car’s taillights were out of sight.



For five years there was no Little League, no marching band, no touch football, no family vacations to Holiday Beach. But it wasn’t like this just for the fourth man; everyone else’s father was also fighting the war.


During the war the fourth man’s mother opened a grocery store. Within a year she’d expanded from one store to two. By the end of the war she owned four grocery stores and an ice cream shop. When the fourth man’s father came home he could have quit his job and worked for her.



Is a quality that’s not emphasized enough in public schools. For example, in elementary and high school the fourth man’s favorite subject had always been math. He liked math because it was relatively straightforward; if you knew the equations you could solve the problems. Still, his grades were never any better than B’s and C’s. It wasn’t until he went to college and joined the NROTC that he learned that if he worked harder he could do better. It was then that he had four a.m. wake-up calls, seven-mile runs, push-ups, sit-ups, and the drill sergeant’s hot breath in his face. He could still recall the warm swell of pride he felt when he earned his first A in calculus, when he ran his first six-minute mile, when the drill sergeant told him that he’d graduated from maggot to scum.



They say that the fifth man was the unlucky one because he never got to actually set foot on the moon. But he was the one who said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” After that, Tom Hanks played him in the movie of his life. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two.



Before Gagarin, the Russians launched fifty-seven dogs into space. The first and most famous dog to achieve full orbit was Laika, who died seven hours into the mission from stress and overheating. Next, though less well known, were Belka and Strelka, who went up together, spent a full day in orbit, and returned to Earth alive. What’s not often mentioned is that Belka and Strelka didn’t go up alone. They were accompanied by one gray rabbit, two white rats, and forty-two mice, all of whom also returned to Earth alive.


Imagine throwing a dart and hitting a perfect bull’s-eye. Now imagine that the dart weighs five tons and the bull’s-eye is sixty miles away. Essentially that’s what the fourth man had been asked to do. His job was to pilot the lunar module off the surface of the moon and reconnect it with the mothership that was orbiting above, traveling at an average land speed of 3,500 mph. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot and is made no less impressive by the fact that the fourth man had spent six years practicing for it. Imagine what it takes to spend six years preparing for just one perfect moment.



Was played by Kevin Bacon in the fifth man’s movie. After his NASA career, the sixth man was elected to Congress by a landslide. When he died they named a middle school after him in Colorado. He has a big statue in Washington, DC.



One common misconception about the fourth man’s father is that he only built dams. But if you go out to Possum Kingdom or Somerville or any of the other dozen new lakes and recreation areas that have sprung up along the Brazos River since the 1940s, you can see for yourself that dams are only half the father’s story. He built reservoirs.



After the war, the fourth man’s father traveled to places like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee to build new dams. He’d be gone for months at a time, and for a long time the fourth man thought that his father was ignoring him. But later, as an adult, he realized that he could drive to almost any reservoir in the four-state area, sit in the shadow of its dam, look up at the two hundred vertical feet of concrete, and know that his father had had a hand in building it. In another one or two hundred years his father’s dams would still be there. How many other sons could claim a legacy like that?


In terms of pure scientific discovery, some people say that we didn’t learn enough to justify the tremendous costs of multiple return trips to the moon. But these are the kinds of people who don’t understand what Sir Edmund Hillary meant when he said, “Because it’s there.” What we learned is that we were able to put twelve Americans on the moon and send more than double that number into lunar orbit. There’s no other nation in history that has done anything close. Columbus only sailed to the New World four times. Magellan only circumnavigated the globe once.



“This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation” is what the president said after the first and second man came back from the moon. When the fifth and sixth man returned he hosted a dinner for them and spoke of their “special qualities” and “extraordinary concert of skills.” What would the president have said about the fourth man if the two had ever met? This is something that the fourth man would also like to know.



Besides walking on the moon, the fourth man’s next proudest moment was earning his first pair of naval aviator wings. In 1955 he’d spent a year in Beeville practicing takeoffs and landings, takeoffs and landings, until the time came for the graduation ceremony in June. By then his father was in Tennessee, on the Tennessee River, building what would become the Boone Dam. The fourth man could still remember how hot he’d been in his Navy whites, the shadeless bleachers with the one empty seat that he’d reserved for his father, the way his mother’s hands shook when she pinned the bronze wings to his chest.



The fourth man believed in living a life without them. There’s no point dwelling on the past when what really matters is always what’s happening next. Still, if he could go back and change one thing, he’d have liked it if his father had been alive to see him walk on the moon.


When Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night, no one said that it was one of the best paintings ever painted. It took people years to recognize and appreciate the genius of what he’d done. The same is true for many of history’s famous people. The New York Times misspelled Herman Melville’s name in his obituary. It took two hundred years for Copernicus’s theory to be confirmed. So was the fourth man worried that he wasn’t immediately as well known as some of the other men who’d walked on the moon? He’d prefer to let history be the judge of who is remembered and who is not.



The seventh man to fly to the moon was also the second man to have flown in space after Gagarin. Even before he planted the American flag in lunar soil, everyone already knew who he was.



The eighth man is the astronaut NASA wishes everyone would forget. He was the first man to throw a javelin on the moon and the only astronaut to state publicly and often his belief in extraterrestrials. After NASA, the eighth man founded the Institute of Noetic Studies, which, according to its literature, “conducts and supports research into areas that more mainstream scientists do not entertain.” Think aliens; think remote healing; think ESP.


Some astronauts say that they felt God’s presence on the moon, but it wasn’t quite like that for the fourth man. When he floated down to the surface and bounded from crater to desolate crater, he too felt as if someone else was there bounding along with him, though it wasn’t God. How to explain it except to say that there’s a special bond that connects father and son?



To say that the fourth man’s father spent much of his time away from his family building dams is not to suggest that he was totally absent. Some of the fourth man’s best memories are the ones of his father coming home.



In 1961, the fourth man was working on ejection seats in Jacksonville, Florida. There was an electrical malfunction that year which caused some of the seats to misfire. The seats wouldn’t eject, or when they did their parachutes wouldn’t deploy. Good pilots died. This was also the year that the fourth man’s father suffered a massive heart attack while on a walk around the reservoir at Possum Kingdom. Plunging is how the fourth man would later describe the sensation of suddenly returning home. He didn’t fly home, and he didn’t hurry home. From the moment after he hung up the phone with his mother, he plunged.



On their return trip from the moon, as their capsule plunged through the miles of upper atmosphere, the third man looked out the window, at the sky lighting up yellow and orange with flames around them, and tried to describe the feeling of endless descent. He said he’d never felt anything like it. Not so for the fourth man. He said he’d felt it once before.


A flood is usually taken to mean a great flowing or overflowing of water, but it can also be used to express an outpouring of emotion, as in a flood of tears.



What surprised the fourth man most about the moon was its complete barrenness. Sure, he’d known from the experience of other astronauts that the surface of the moon was a wasteland. “Magnificent desolation” is how the second man described it. Others talked about the moon’s essential grayness, its sand like ash. Still, how to comprehend such an empty landscape? As the fourth man walked across the moon’s battered surface, the Earth glowed blue like an aquarium in the distance.



They say once you travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere you’ve been essentially changed. Gamma rays begin to bombard you at 328,000 feet. Bones and muscles lose density in the vacuum. Weightlessness often causes space sickness with nausea and vomiting. When Gagarin returned from his first space flight, he complained of black dots dancing around the edge of his vision. He was stricken with headaches. Though he’d been a lifelong atheist, he had his daughter baptized almost as soon as he stepped off the plane.


The ninth man smuggled more than three hundred commemorative stamps with him to the surface of the moon. When he returned he sold them to a German stamp dealer for a lot of money, which he used to establish a trust fund for the families of Apollo astronauts. Though NASA let him keep the money, they made sure that he never flew a space mission again.



Had a minor heart attack on the moon. When he came back, he founded High Flight Ministries and dedicated the rest of his life to finding Noah’s ark. After several unsuccessful expeditions to Mount Ararat, he retired to Colorado Springs, where he suffered his third major heart attack. He was the first man who walked on the moon to die.



The eleventh man took a framed picture of his family with him to the moon and left it on the surface under the American flag. They say that with a strong enough telescope you can make out the picture. You can still see the footprints of all the men who walked on the moon.



When the fourth man came back from the moon he enrolled himself in painting classes. At first he couldn’t say why he was taking them except that he’d always liked beautiful things. His favorite airplanes to fly were always the sleekest and most beautiful. His favorite dam that his father built was the one with buttresses. He liked that while painting he could lay one color on top of another and increase the beauty of both. It was like mathematics, the way you can add two numbers to create a greater sum. The first painting he made that he ever thought successful was called Hopes and Dreams and showed a spaceship blasting off. At first the picture didn’t capture the grandeur of the actual event, so he painted a rainbow in the sky behind it. What the fourth man liked best about painting is that you could solve problems with colors. You could record and enlarge.


The twelfth man was the final man to walk on the moon. By then the national mood had changed. Even the fourth man didn’t watch it on television. He’d been up to the space station to do experiments with spiders, he’d trained with the Russians in Space City, he’d been made NASA’s chief astronaut, and he was thinking of retiring so that he could paint full time. That night more people watched reruns of Hawaii Five-O.



The fourth man’s next successful painting was of two astronauts leaping off the surface of the moon, their hands meeting in high fives. The Earth is high in the sky above them, and in the background there’s a big, billowing American flag. This never happened, of course; the moon missions were dangerous and the mood much too serious. But it’s what should have happened, again and again.



One astronaut floating in space above another who’s lying in repose on the surface of the moon. Both astronauts have their fingers extended toward each other in a imitation of Michelangelo’s famous scene on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the one where God gives Adam life.



It’s true that the fourth man took his father’s remains with him to the moon. The final thing he did before returning to the lunar module was scatter his father’s ashes. He tossed the ashes and watched them mix with moon dust. In this sense you could say that his father really was with him on the moon. You could also say that his father is still up there, that he’s permanently 286,000 miles away.


A more somber painting than most of the others: a ghostly astronaut standing on the moon’s surface. The astronaut’s legs are transparent and fade until they become indistinguishable from the surface of the moon itself.



By the time the fourth man arrived at the emergency room his father had passed away. The fourth man was told that his father held on longer than anyone had expected, that he insisted on seeing his son before saying his final good-bye. But this was just like the fourth man’s father. He always insisted on saying a proper good-bye to everyone, because, he said, a proper good-bye always implied its corollary. Whenever the fourth man stood at the top of the driveway and waved good-bye to his father, his father would lean out the window of his Cruiser, honk the horn, and yell, “I’ll see you again.”



There are two astronauts on the moon tossing a football. One of the astronauts is the father and the other, obviously, is the son. In the picture, the son is holding the football and wants to toss it to the father, who’s running away from him, sprinting toward a crater. If you look closely, through the son’s visor, you’ll see that his mouth’s open and that he’s shouting something. If you could hear him, you’d hear that he’s shouting: “Turn around. Look at me. I’m here. I’m here.”

Sunday, July 1, 2012