Monday, August 23, 2010

Small Steps

May, 1984
     The class perked up when Mr. Wells pulled down the white screen in the front of the classroom. “Get out your Social Studies notebooks, please. We have arrived at a recent, and most exciting, time in our study of United States history.” He pulled a cart into position, and threaded the film through the projector. “Please take notes on these events, and prepare to ask your parents about their impact on your lives.”
     A slight groan met his enthusiasm for interactive history, but mostly the class was impressed that it was an actual movie, not just another lame filmstrip. The teacher flicked off the lights, and the serious voice of the narrator filled the fifth-grade classroom. I started doodling in the margins of my blank page. Most of the images on the screen were still shots, just like a filmstrip. But then the scene shifted to show John F. Kennedy addressing Congress.
     “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space . . .”
     I winced. Did we have to dwell on that part of history?
     The narrator droned on about how the Space Race heated up the Cold War, as groups of scientists posed for pictures, rockets launched into desert skies, and animated satellites emitted concentric radio waves into space. Then, the famous fuzzy footage of the Apollo 11 mission.
     “One small step for a man,” Neil Armstrong said, looking down at his boot. “But who made these really small footprints? Hey!” He fell out of the camera’s view, tackled by blurry white forms.
     “American scientists and engineers rose to the challenge of creating new technology to respond to the lessons learned on the moon.” More pictures of scientists, construction workers, politicians, launches. A quick shot of a dark-haired man with glasses, an oxygen tank, and a notebook, interviewing a diminutive pale creature. I glanced around, my face burning. No one else seemed to recognize him. Why would they? I sank down in my chair, anyway.
     “The discovery of intelligent life on the moon ushered in a new era of responsibility for America’s guardians of freedom.” A hulking spacecraft crossed the black sky behind the Stars and Stripes, to be replaced by a heavily decorated admiral and a moon person in formal robes. “Our mission here is to keep these little guys out of the clutches of Communism,” the admiral announced, and patted the small dignitary on the head.
     “With construction of a permanent moon base underway,” the camera scrolled over an architectural drawing, “and expansion of the Naval Space Fleet, the United States of America continues to reach for the stars.” The Big Dipper faded into the blue field of the flag, the credits rolled, and the bell rang for lunch.
     “Remember, I want three paragraphs on how space exploration has affected your life, by Tuesday!” Mr. Wells called out over the hubbub.
     I could barely choke down my sandwich at lunch, and I gave Lori my cookie without even trading. I toyed morosely with the latch of my lunch box while Tiffany prattled on. Melissa glanced at me with concern, but even she could not get a word in edgewise.
     At recess we lined up to play Four Square, as usual, but I could not concentrate. When Tiffany called, “Around the world–movie stars!” I fumbled the ball and said, “Dad.” I looked around. “Okay, I’m out.”
     Melissa took my arm. “Let’s walk,” she said, and Lori came, too. I hoped Tiffany would keep playing with the next girls in line, but she followed along.
     “I have to tell you something,” I blurted out.
     “Ooh, who is your secret heartthrob?” Tiffany rubbed her hands gleefully. I ignored her.
     “I’m moving this summer.”
     “Already?” asked Lori.
     “You just got here,”said Melissa.
     “I know,” I sighed. “My dad is being transferred. He says it is only for a year. I’ll be back for seventh grade.”
     “That’s good. Where are you going?”
     “You’ll never believe it. I don’t,” I said.
     I shook my head. “To the moon.”
     “No way! That’s so cool!” Lori and Melissa looked excited.
     Tiffany had something else on her mind. “You can’t do that. You’ll miss the dance.”
     “What dance?”
     “It’s a school tradition. Every June, the sixth grade has a dance.” She put her hand over her heart, and looked longingly at a boy who was flopping like a fish on the grass. “I’m going to go with Billy.”
     “He already asked you?” Melissa asked incredulously.
     “No, but I’m going to make sure he will.” Tiffany batted her eyelashes, pivoted, and started sliding backward toward the breakdancing boys. “Better practice your moonwalk, Spacey Stacy!”
     Looking at the boys, I could not imagine dancing with any of them. “Maybe leaving the planet is not such a bad idea,” I commented.
     “Can we come, too?” Lori asked wistfully.
     “So, why are you moving to the moon?” asked Melissa.
     “Dad is a linguist. After the moon people were discovered, the government sent him and a couple of other guys to figure out their language. He wrote the book on Lunish, and another to teach them to speak English. There was a picture of him in that movie.”
     “Wow. So why does he need to go again? Is he going to write another book?”
     “No idea. It’s classified.”
     Melissa nodded. Her father worked for the government, too. “Don’t worry. We’ll write and tell you all about Tiffany’s conquests.”
     I rolled my eyes as the bell rang. The boys quit trying their stunts and ran to line up for class. Half of them shouted, “Spacey Stacy!” as they passed.
     “Oh, great. I know what to call my Social Studies essay,” I decided. “‘How Lunar Exploration Ruined My Life.’”

July, 1984
     After school let out, my life was a frenzy of immunizations, passport photos, shopping, and deciding what to pack. Between chores, my mother took me on a series of “last” visits, to the beach, to the Smithsonian, to the farm stand for fresh corn and cantaloupe.
     I was feeling a bit nervous the night before the launch. “Why don’t you take a nice last bath, dear?” my mother suggested in a soothing voice.
     “‘Last bath?’ What do you mean by ‘last?’” I was not soothed.
     “Well, the moon is a desert, so we’re going to have to conserve water.”
     “I can’t go for a year without a bath!”
     “There are . . . other ways to get clean.” Even she sounded a bit doubtful. “Go enjoy a nice bubble bath.”
     I filled the tub as high as possible with steamy water and bubbles, and tried to let my cares soak away. I propped my feet up next to the faucet, and regarded my toes.
     One of them waved at me.
     Surprised, I kept watching, and it happened again. My right pinky toe moved sideways, away from the other toes, and then returned. I didn’t know I could do that. But soon I realized I could move my right pinky toe voluntarily, and my left one, too.
     Was that normal? Could everyone move their toes independently, and I’d never heard about it? Was it one of those weird, inherited traits, like my dad’s forked eyebrow, or my ability to crease my tongue into the shape of a cross? Or was I just a freak of Nature?
     I was going to live on another world, and I didn't even know if I fit into my own. 
     Maybe the moon people would make a movie about me. I could see the title on the marquee: INVASION OF THE MUTANT PREHENSILE-TOED ALIEN SIXTH-GRADER FROM EARTH!
     I practiced popping bubbles between my toes, until the bath water was as smooth as glass.


  1. lol. this was a fun, endearing magpie...invasion of the mutant prehensile toes sixth grader...wonder how hard it is to learn lunish...smiles.

  2. A clever invasion - delightful tale!

  3. Very creative! Was wondering how you were going to get the bathtub in there...but you did it beautifully. Can't wait to read more of your work.

  4. Ha ha! Wasn't sure where you were going with this, but it works wonderfully! Alien Prehensile-Toed Sixth Graders, lunish and best of all the lovely image of the water at the end. Nice!

  5. Incredibly charming!! I love the way you weaved the bath into the piece. (I can do odd things with my pinky toe, too!)

  6. Great fun and most imaginative. A year without a bath - oh dear ;-)

  7. I absolutely loved this and so so well written.