One afternoon, my daughter Edith asked me where the phrase, “Houston, we have a problem,” came from. She’d heard it on the cartoons she watched.
So I’d explained the problems of the Apollo 13 mission: the malfunction in the space ship, the repairs solved by mission control using only what was available on the ship, computations done by slide rule, the looming concern the ship and its crew might be irretrievable. The command center itself, giant computers with blinking lights, no Internet, just radio. The difference between Cape Canaveral and the command center in Houston, Texas, too, because she asked. She’d been surprised because she’d thought Houston was a person.
I told her we should talk about the space missions. That they’d taken place when I’d been in kindergarten and early elementary school. Younger than she was now. I didn’t remember Apollo 13 very clearly—perhaps my parents had been worried it would scare us. And so much easier to hide the news then—just the physical newspaper, the off dial on the radio, the TV that received two station signals regularly, three when the weather was clear across the lake.
I did remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. Our kindergarten teacher had given us each a commemorative stamp: first-class, ten cents. It was summer and we watched the moon landing from the television in my parents’ bedroom on the ground floor of our house. I remembered the contrast between black and white images on TV and the world outside our windows: a sense of “here” evaporating—“here” was that room and outside with the flowers and the trees waving gently in the breeze and it was also up in the sky where I could not see. Except I could see on the television. All of it simultaneous. Real in its simultaneity.
I also remembered the return of the various space capsules to earth. Walter Cronkite would broadcast conversation from the cockpit as the capsule neared earth’s atmosphere: military jokes, calm and cool voices of the astronauts giving the impression that all this, all this was just procedure. Just the way military men on the bases where my dad did his summer duty—Fort Belvoir, Fort Lee—had been solemn and funny at the same time.
Then Cronkite’s voice and the voices of the reporters would get tense as the capsule hit the outer layers of the atmosphere and the men entered the period (we viewers were instructed) during which there could be no radio communication as the last piece of the big rocket, what was left after its long voyage and the intermittent jettison of its parts, hit the friction of what we called air. Would the heat shields hold? It was surely hot inside as our atmosphere slowed the capsule’s speed, the friction creating heat, like a rug burn, flames bursting at its convex base.
Silence. Silence. Waiting and the cameras were trained at the sky, at the place the capsule should emerge into blue of air just before hitting blue of ocean. And pan the sky again. Then a black dot and bigger and it would be the capsule and a big parachute would deploy. And then voices.
Radio blackout. That point in time when you are truly alone, on your own, while all that’s left is to wait.
My son Robert under anesthesia yet again—going under, either through a mask or, sometimes, the agent delivered through his g-tube. The white sheet under him, bright lights, anesthesiologist explaining what would happen, that the anesthesia smelled like bubble gum. And Robert’s startled face each and every time as the mask covered his mouth and nose. Breathing, then his breath held, startled, and breathing again. Eyes wide in alarm and then drooping closed.
How quickly they made me leave each time when I’d wanted to linger one second longer to be sure he was OK.
And, after radio silence, his return to earth. Limbs and eyes stirring, then he’d wake to remember then again not know where he was or had been.
I’d thought of none of this while I’d been pulled through the CT scan repeatedly a few days after Edith’s question, but it was as though I had thought of it. The room had been quiet, white and cold. And big. Because the equipment was big. And lonely because the technicians had left the room to monitor computers in an office at the back.
There’d been just me, entering the machine’s white ring, wondering if my elbows resting by my ears would hit. The recorded voice had told me to breathe in, hold my breath. Silence. Long pause. The whirring whine of whatever made the images and my trying not to look below the little sign because it said, do not look into the red square. But the sign hadn’t explained why it might be dangerous.
Then the recorded voice had said, with such odd urgency for a machine, breathe!
Jeneva Stone’s poetry and nonfiction have appeared in LA Review of Books, Colorado Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Collagist, Pleiades, and many others, as well as the anthologies Myrrh, Mothwing, Smoke (Tupelo) and Rare Diseases in the Age of Health 2.0 (Springer). The recipient of nonfiction fellowships from the MacDowell and Millay colonies, she lives in Bethesda, MD.