Scene from a Cemetery Stroll


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Rebecca just shared this with me, and it’s now my favorite pic of me from the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll. (For some reason, the first I’ve seen of me talking where I’m not making a horrible face. If you have any others, I’d love to see them!)

It’s always an honor to portray Turner Mayes at the Cemetery Stroll, and to share his story, and, by extension, the story of all of those from this area who fought – and in some cases died – in the Great War.

This year was particularly poignant, however, because the Tuesday before the Stroll marked 100 years since Private Mayes was killed by a German mortar in the Argonne forest.

Next month, Veterans Day, will mark the centennial anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. I encouraged those who came by Sunday, and encourage those reading this as well, to take a moment that day to remember all who served in that war.

My Name, Writ, Across the Sky


This is a story about the most memorable time I watched the International Space Station fly overhead, but it’s also a story about the Soviet Union and the Nintendo Entertainment System.

So before I talk about standing in an empty field early one morning ten years ago today, I need to jump back about twenty years before that, too.

My friend Jason Smith introduced me to Ultima about three decades ago, initially on his household Commodore 64. We didn’t have a C64 at my house, but when Ultima IV came out for the Nintendo, I had to have it.

I’ve not played it in years, but it’s stuck in my head as a favorite of its class of role playing games, an innovative take on the medium less about fighting monsters than about character. The realm of the Ultima games was ruled by Lord British, a character who coexisted as both fictional and real, ruler of realms of Brittania in the Ultima games and nom de plum of the creator of those realms in real life.

For who grew up in the last 26 years or so, it’s worth noting that these were the waning days of the Cold War, even if the average person didn’t fully appreciate that yet. However frightening the specter of Russian interference may be today, it doesn’t hold a candle to the fear of a Soviet Union nuclear attack that loomed over life.

When I was growing up, the Space Race mentality of the ‘60s was a thing of the past, but space also was not defined by the international cooperation of today. Space was still very much an us-versus-them thing, the United States with its shuttles and the Soviet Union with its Soyuz and space stations.

Lord British, in real life, is a man by the name of Richard Garriott. His father is Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott. I’d heard of the former before I heard of the latter.

When Owen and I signed the contract with the University of Nebraska Press to write Homesteading Space together, I called my dad and told him I was writing a book with a Skylab astronaut. I called my friend Jason and told him I was writing a book with Lord British’s dad.

I came very close to not even trying to write that book because it seemed absurd. It’s not the sort of thing people like me got to do. Better and better-known writers got to do things like that. Not people like me.

Two significant Garriott milestones just passed their tenth anniversaries.

Ten years and a week ago, we received the first copies of Homesteading Space.

Ten years and ten days ago, Richard Garriott launched into space.

Richard visited the International Space Station as a paid spaceflight participant, purchasing a seat on a Russian spacecraft, accompanying a NASA and Russian crew to conduct a personal mission in space.

Earlier that year, Richard had noticed the close timing of those two events, and asked if Owen if he would like to fly something related to the book into space. The book wouldn’t be out, and really was kind of large to pack, so we decided to make photo prints of the cover.

It was a last-minute opportunity, so we needed to get them made quickly. I took a digital image of the file, and processed it through Target’s instant printing.

I’ve loved ever since being able to mark the anniversary of the day I bought a spaceflight payload at Target. Today, working with payload integration as my day job, it amuses me even more. I sit in meetings about all the PIPs and ICDs and EOMPs and ODARs and IDRDs needed to put something in space, and the one time I’ve had something flown of my own, I bought it at Target.

The three authors signed the prints and Owen got them to Richard.

Which brings us to ten years ago today.

It was early that morning when the International Space Station flew over Huntsville, but I wasn’t going to miss it. I stood in an empty field, as far from lights as I could easily get, and watched as the bright dot, carrying Richard Garriott and his Soyuz and my Target payload and my signature, crossed the sky.

It’s a moment I’ll spend my life being grateful for.

It’s a moment, amazing in its own right, made all the richer for the absurdity of it.

It’s made me wish I could go back in time and tell 15-year-old me about it.

“You know Lord British, right? Many years from now, the video game character you like is going to be in one of those Soyuz spaceships the Soviet Union uses.

“And with him he’s going to have a picture of a book given to him by your astronaut friend, his dad, and it’s going to have your handwritten name on it.

“And you’re going to see it fly overhead in space.”

I’m not sure what 15-year-old me would have thought.

Maybe he would have been quicker to jump on the opportunity to write that book when the time came, even if he wasn’t a better or better-known writer.

Either he would have believed it was absurd, that it was impossible. Or he would have had to believe that anything is possible.

That’s not a bad lesson to learn.

Almost a Review of First Man


When the movie Gravity came out a few years ago, interesting conversations were had about what sort of movie it was. It was about spaceships doing spaceship things, which would generally make it science fiction, but all the spaceships were real, and science fiction uses involves made up things.* I looked forward to seeing that trend grow – the idea that space was just another place that a movie could be set.

Exhibit A: First Man.

As apparently must be mentioned in any discussion of First Man, this movie is not The Right Stuff or Apollo 13.

Those were space movies. This is a movie set partially in space.

Specifically, it’s a family drama – an intimate and personal portrait of a family; a family in which the dad has a rather unusual day job. A day job which involves the movie being set partially in space. Because everyone works somewhere, and sometimes that work involves travel.

I came out of watching First Man the first time, and immediately starting discussing it with the person I watched it with. My immediate reaction – I’m still processing. Honestly, that was still largely true a week later when I saw it again.

I’d had this sense that First Man wasn’t going to be what a lot of people thought it was going to be, but it wasn’t anything I thought it would be, either.

The story of the Armstrongs unfolds in a way that is deeply personal and unflinching; the story it tells and the way it is told mesh deftly – every intricacy of how the movie is shot tells its story.

I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about the subject – Having had the opportunity to meet and talk with Apollo astronauts, to get to know them as people, I made the decision that I wanted Neil Armstrong to stay larger than life for me, more legend than human. The Neil Armstrong in this movie is very human; but while it’s largely exhaustive in its pursuit of accuracy, there are a few moments of speculation that shift it back into the status of legend, growing and changing in each retelling.

The result of my processing is this – I really like the movie for what it is; a well-made biopic of a fascinating man, and the vanguard of the era of movies that just happen to be set in space.

And for space just happening to the setting, the space part is done as well as, if not better than, any movie before it. The space scenes here aren’t sexy or glamorous; they’re realistic in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before, and all the more powerful for it. I strongly suspect this movie captures what it was like to actually ride in these vehicles in a way that’s never been done before.

I almost hate to acknowledge it, but even just this week I’ve had people bring up the flag-planting controversy, and I’ve seen speculation it hurt the box office. Yes, it’s true that you see the flag on the moon without seeing the frankly anticlimactic moment its planted, but that’s missing the point. The sad irony is that unfair criticism are keeping people from watching what is almost certainly one of this year’s movies that most celebrates America.

With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 now less than a year away, First Man makes a half-century old story fresh enough to inspire in a new era of exploration.

*Of course, the orbital mechanics in Gravity were science that was fiction, but I’m actually on the side of the filmmakers on that one.

Free Advice for Writers, Worth Exactly That


I posted on Facebook yesterday that it was the 10th anniversary of my first book, Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, with a picture from the day I got my first copies.
And I looked at that picture of a thinner, darker-haired version of me proudly holding his first copy of his first book, and I thought:
“I’m glad that kid wrote a book and put my name on it. ‘Cause I sure couldn’t do that.”
For people who say they want to write a book, or even just write more, it’s easy to think there will be a better time.
My life is different because the guy in that picture knew better.
I wrote an actual post once of My Bad Advice On Book Publishing, but I’ll add two bits of worthless free advice for writers:
1) The only way to do it is to do it.
2) There will never be a better time than now.

Happy Birthday NASA!


NASA turns 60 today.
 
My great-aunt worked at Marshall Space Flight Center. I’m not entirely sure when she started or exactly when she left, but I know she was there during the Gemini program and I know she was there after Return to Flight after the Challenger disaster.
 
When I was little, she gave me things she’d collected over the years – stickers and lithographs and patches and coins. To young me, it was an incredible treasure.
 
When I started working at Marshall, I began adding to the collection, supplementing the relics of her tenure with those of mine. And, occasionally, the odd bits here and there from the interregnum between us.
 
Her collection is the more impressive – over a quarter century, covering the early days of NASA through the moon landings to Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz and the golden age of the first shuttle flights and the triumphant return after Challenger. It’s tempting to be jealous of the milestones of her time.
 
Even so, my shorter collection is surreal to me.
 
NASA was still a teenager when I was born. That era, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to Skylab to Apollo-Soyuz, is history to me.
 
It’s a little odd to realize that the work I’ve been part of that history. It’s odd to think that I’ve been involved in NASA for almost a quarter of its existence.
 
In just a few years, I will have been involved in NASA for as long as it had been around when I was born. Around the time I reach that milestone, we’ll watch humans return to lunar orbit.
 
Should my tenure be as long as hers, I too will watch astronauts walk on the moon.
 
I’m honored to be part of this story. I believe the work NASA does is a good thing. I believe there is value in striving harder, aiming higher, reaching further. I believe the work this agency does reflects the best of who we are as a species.
 

It’s been an amazing 60 years. But the best is yet to come.

One Day In September


I never saw the twin towers.
 
On the day they fell, I was working in Indianola, Mississippi as News Editor of The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper. I’d been to upstate New York, but had never been to the city.
 
My managing editor woke me up that morning with a phone call. (In those days, we worked well into the night and often started late in the morning.) The call made no sense to my groggy mind. Something about two separate planes hitting the World Trade Center. I heard something about unrelated incidents. I was picturing Cessnas or something. Certainly a bizarre coincidence, but I didn’t understand why he was calling me.
 
He told me to come to the office. I did. I understood then. We watched the towers fall.
 
The Enterprise-Tocsin is a weekly newspaper in a small town in the Mississippi Delta. To this day, it’s a great example of community journalism. The content is entirely local; there are no wire stories in The E-T.
 
I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to do. Generally speaking, The E-T focused its attention fully within the borders of Sunflower County, Mississippi, and ignored anything beyond the county lines.
 
This was far far beyond our county lines.
 
This was not a thing we could ignore.
 
We would use no wire stories, but we would cover the events of that day. We began working on a local reaction story, capturing how these events had affected our community.
 
But, very quickly, we learned that it was a local story.
 
By the end of the day, I was on the phone with a young man from Indianola who had been there that morning. He was freshly out of college, at his first day on his new job at Morgan Stanley.
 
Hours before I talked to him, he had been making his way down stairs. Not long after, his new workplace collapsed into rubble.
 
I learned something that day about what “local’ means. Regardless of what city you’re in, what county you’re in, there are times local is far bigger than that.
 
There are days the entire country is local.
 
There are days the entire planet is local.
 
The anniversary this year is slightly different for me.
 
I never saw the twin towers, but I have stood where they stood.
 
Rebecca and I went to New York City two months ago; the first time for me.
 
We visited the pools that fill the two iconic squares that mark the boundaries of where the towers once stood. We visited the memorial; heard, saw and experienced the story of what happened there that day.
 
It was real for me in a way I’d never understood before.
 
But, this, too, was real:
 
We stayed in a hotel a short distance from the site.
 
Our window was filled by One World Trade Center.
 
We took the elevator to the top. We looked out over the city.
 
It’s a beautiful building.
 
I never saw the twin towers.
 
I’ve seen the World Trade Center.
 
My experience of that day 17 years ago was defined by connection. By the realization that the world is much smaller than I realized. That distant events are much closer than I knew. No man is an island, nor is any county in Mississippi.
 
My experience this year is informed by what I saw in July.
 
Devastation is not defeat. So long as we endure, hope endures. So long as hope endures, there is resilience.
 
We fall.
 
We rise.

Sk8er Thunder – The Compelling Evidence That “Thunder” and “Sk8er Boi” Are the Same Story


In this divided and contentious time, there are few things on which we can all agree, but I’d like to propose an item on which we should be able to find consensus:

It should be national head canon that Imagine Dragons’ Thunder is the same guy as Avril Lavigne’s Sk8erBoi.

It’s worth noting that Dan Reynolds is 31 and Lavigne is 33. While there’s no reason to believe they knew each other, they’re coming along in the same zeitgeist.

But let’s take a look at the textual evidence, shall we?

Fact One: “He was a boy, she was a girl.”

Can I make it any more obvious?

Fact Two: Aforementioned boy is a rebel.

Lavigne describes him as “a punk” and a misfit.

Thunder tells us he’s a a young gun with a quick fuse, not a “yes sir,” not a follower.

Fact Three: The other kids at school don’t get him.

“All of her friends
Stuck up their nose
They had a problem with his baggy clothes”

“Kids were laughing in my classes
While I was scheming for the masses
Who do you think you are?
Dreaming ’bout being a big star”

Fact Three And A Half:

One of the particular insults hurled at the guy in Thunder by his classmates is that he’s “always riding in the back seat.”

Which seems odd until you realize he’s in the back seat BECAUSE HE DOESN’T HAVE A CAR, thus all the skateboarding!

(I could pretty much declare QED and drop the mic there, but we’re not done.)

Fact Four: The boy goes on to become a star, she’s just a fan.

“they’ve all got tickets to see his show
She tags along
Stands in the crowd”

“Now I’m smiling from the stage while
You were clapping in the nose bleeds”

You might note that the narratives diverge with the absence of the girl character from Sk8er Boi, but the text justifies this.

While the girl is still hung up on “the man that she turned down,”* the guy has moved on with his life, thus to him she’s just one of the many other kids in his classes.

And with that, I rest my case.

Thank you for your consideration, and let the healing begin.

*It’s worth pointing out also that Sk8er Boi is technically a meta-narrative, not actually from the point of view of that girl, but projection from the guy’s current significant other onto that girl, so it can’t be treated as wholly accurate.