Tuesday, November 30, 2010

rocket man

Michigan viewed from SkyLab III
The metal schoolyard shed looked strange in the early morning starlight.  It always looked strange compared to the yellow brick school next to it.  I'd been advancing along that building all my life, one room at a time.  My class was past the middle of the building now.  The 5th grade class was on the far side of the gymnasium.  Grades 4-6 on the north side, K-3 on the south.  I was standing pretty close to my classroom.  But I wasn't thinking about that as I considered the shed.  Smooth-walled and painted a metallic gray, in the starlight it was an alien silver.

I thought about how my brother and I climbed it as a challenge, pioneering a kind of bouldering technique using the small shed door handle and the two metal hinges.  The walls sloped inwards slightly, so if you could hop up on the first hinge, you could lean inward as you reached up for the second, placing your foot on the handle in the middle.  Once you grasped the higher hinge, you could pull yourself up onto the (also sloped and smooth) metal roof, You had to bend over and shimmy forward on your belly until you could grab the big metal loop in the center of the roof.  Pull, then up.  From there, if you were brave, you could walk to the edge and grab the roof of the school itself.  Up again.  In the summer, the metal would be blazing and sitting on top of the shed was like being in a sauna.  In winter, climbing it was almost impossible because the metal was so conductive your fingers froze before you could scale it.

Three-thirty in the morning.  That fact made the scene not just strange looking to me, but a little thrilling.  A couple of friends told me they would meet me by the shed.  But I was alone at the meeting time, and I didn't have a watch.  I really didn't want to be late. I folded up the scrap of newspaper I was carrying and put it in my pocket. Up on the shed, up on the school. 

Of course, I'd been on the school roof many times before.  We were free range kids before "free range kids" was a phrase.  Being on the roof of our school was a great place to be in our big dirt clod wars.  If you didn't get caught.  But I had never climbed the tall brick smokestack.  I hesitated a moment before climbing the metal rungs, hand over hand.  The stack was a brick rectangle, perhaps three feet wide.  The rusty rungs on the north side went all the way to the top. 

At the top, there wasn't enough room to actually get off the rungs and sit or stand.  I was too scared to do that anyway, since the smokestack stood by itself.  Vertigo.  I'm not sure if the darkness made it more scary or less, since I couldn't see that well.  I clung to the top rung as my head cleared the edge.  Four sharp metal spikes on the four corners pointed skyward.   Lightning rods, I realized.  They reminded me of the school drills where we'd pour into the long hallway, sitting cross-legged, heads bent over, hands over our necks.  These drills were practice for tornadoes, though it always felt like they were actually used as school-wide time-outs.

I wanted to check the newspaper scrap in my pocket.  It listed the times and dates for local sightings.  But I didn't want to take my hand off the top rung.  It was too dark to read anyway, I realized.

I waited, scanning the sky and my neighborhood.  I looked in what I thought was the right direction.  

How different the Michigan landscape looked from forty feet.  Across the street, I could make out my house where my family was still asleep.  I was about as high as our rooftop.  To the south, the Ecourse creek wound around the school.  The actual shape of my neighborhood became clear.

Nothing in the sky but stars.  If I could see it, it would be a fast-moving glint, visible only for a minute or so.  Arcing across the sky, it would be reflecting Earthlight, moonlight, but probably not sunlight at that early hour.  And what would the men up there see down here?  Not me, looking at them, looking towards me.

I don't know why I thought I needed to be up on my grade school smokestack to see Skylab overhead.  Maybe my 11-year-old mind thought I'd get clear of the streetlights, or the smoke of fireplaces.  Maybe it was just part of the adventure I came up with.  Not sure.

I didn't see a manned satellite winging overhead on that cool morning in 1973.  But that didn't keep me from continuing to look to the sky.

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