“All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” – Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
During the hour before I woke up, I walked down the alley behind Don’s house.
A fog settled upon the alley. Soon the lane shed its houses and became a wide trail that ascended into bright clouds.
A figure stood where the trail faded into haze.
The mist gave the figure an unnatural thickness, as if adding to its natural proportions. My stomach sank. Was the figure not human? I squinted and attempted to resolve the figure. At different moments I could see it as a man, as a bear standing on its hind legs, as two men, as nothing at all. Panic consumed me. I screamed, but made a sound so faint that I shuddered to wonder why so much effort came to so little result. I tried to turn and go back the way I had come, but my legs moved in syrup and the figure in the fog remained watching me, its purposes unfathomable and unstoppable.
I awoke at that moment. I mention this dream not because it is profound but because it is mundane and obvious. Nevertheless, shaking off its weight required effort that lasted most of the morning.
Don and I hit the road around lunchtime. He had a few stops to make around town before we set out for Moab. For an hour or two I was just a passenger, free from the responsibility to think about anything in particular. Still, I kept thinking of Bo Cunningham. As I mentioned in an earlier post, during the Apollo era you could write to NASA and they would send you all manner of print materials: photographs, press releases, biographies, that sort of thing. Anything you wanted, just for the asking. My brother and I amassed quite a collection of this stuff. As I would learn later, so did Don. Picturing it all, I could see clearly my 8x10 of Neil Armstrong, looking like the eternal Eagle Scout; and Buzz Aldrin, who to me never appeared particularly friendly; and Fred Haise, with his hair cut like the flat top of an aircraft carrier; and Dave Scott, who always looked like the biggest fuck-up you knew in high school. And there, amidst the lot, Barton “Bo” Cunningham stared at the camera as if staring into the future.
Of all the early U.S. astronauts, Bo Cunningham was my favorite. More than any other astronaut, he seemed to be the one, true, certified badass. I always thought that if he hadn’t been an astronaut he could have, without much effort, replaced Lee Marvin in The Wild One. Some mysterious quality in those official NASA photos suggested to my young mind a man who simply knew more, who would risk more, than the other guys. An early adventure during Gemini confirmed my belief. As the co-pilot of a Gemini mission with Ed Lovett, Cunningham recognized an error in the math that determined the spacecraft’s return trajectory. (Remember this later, when we’re talking about where someone might get an idea about how to secretly alter the trajectory of a spacecraft returning from the moon.) Had Bo not noticed the error, the capsule would have incinerated in the atmosphere. Lovett credited Bo with saving his life and when the Astronaut Office made Lovett commander of Apollo XVIII and asked Lovett whom he wanted to fly with, Lovett placed Bo first on his list. Bo may never have forgiven Ed for that. You see, because Bo had demonstrated such facility with rendezvous, with trans-lunar and trans-earth injection, with calculation of free-return trajectories, and the like, Ed wanted Bo to be the mission’s command module pilot.
The command module pilot does not get to land on the moon.
I imagine Bo sitting alone in his living room on the night the Astronaut Office posted the prime crew assignments for XVIII. In my imagination Bo slumps in a Bertha Schaefer armchair, a rocks glass in one hand, the light from the porch lamp outside making the ice cubes glow in the otherwise dark room. It’s a melodramatic scene; I admit that. But I bet it’s not far off. And it’s part of why I have always thought of Bo as the badass of the astronaut corps. Even before the controversy that surrounded his final flight, Bo always looked as if he were fighting something. An injustice, a bad rap, a lifetime of slights, the repeated failure of others to recognize his worth, something. Which is ridiculous, of course. The man had been selected from a pool of thousands of the best and brightest pilots. And more, he had been recognized, since his Gemini mission with Ed Lovett, as perhaps the most brilliant of all astronauts. So, why did Bo always appear slightly above it all? Look at many of the photos of Bo from this period. Does he not seem to be almost painfully alone when among the corps?
(Bo Cunningham, on the right, wearing hat)
Do you know what I find most interesting? It's that, as far as I can tell, Bo did nothing to counter his reputation as an outsider. I see that now. But when I was young, what was it about Bo’s image that I liked? Was it the sense that outsiders miss opportunities? Was I missing opportunities? Or was it that outsiders live with an unquenchable sense that justice is always just around the corner? Why would those things be important to me?
Before I could work that out, Don completed his errands and drove away from Telluride, heading down valley, as they say around those parts. He stopped the truck at the Sawpit Market, a mountain version of a 7/11 in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Don set the catch on the gas nozzle and while the car filled its tank, Don went into the market to stock up on road grub. I wandered on the gravel, really just to hear the crunch underfoot, and then, when I saw Don exit the store, I went back to the car. I expected Don to get back in the car immediately after the clunks and thunks of the nozzle being replaced on the pump, but that didn’t happen. A full minute went by and I was compelled to turn in my seat so that I could see what was going on.
What was going on was that Don was standing in the middle of the parking area, staring at the store. An incoming car honked at him, which shook Don from some sort of reverie and sent him in my direction. He opened the drivers’ side door, but did not get in.
“Where’s that piece of paper?” Don asked, no small amount of urgency in his voice. “The one with the numbers that you thought was a ticket…”
I fished it out of my backpack and gave it to him. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” he said as he walked toward the market. “But look…”
I caught up with him and followed his gaze to the space just above the front door.
Five numbers: 6 3 8 1 5.
Don held out the slip of paper. “Six three nine two three… That’s not far off...”
Red cliffs and stands of Colorado Blue Spruce and Aspen and Cottonwood smeared past as Don drove the truck further down valley. The churning river, slim but turgid, wound along the left side of the two-lane highway and I had to tell Don more than a few times to keep his eyes on the road and let me look for address markers, lest our Moab day trip end with us pancaked on the front of a UPS truck.
Forest rose on either side of us. Houses were few. We passed a not un-Bates-like motel numbered “63890” and then a gap in the roadside scrub that in an earlier life might have been a foot trail. Stickers you get at the hardware store labelled an ancient mailbox. “64 55.” Even not knowing the missing digit, we understood that 63923 had been overshot.
“I don’t know how we could have missed it," Don said.
“There’s something we don’t know,” I offered, stating the obvious.
We discussed turning around to make another pass, but as we wanted to get to Moab with enough daylight remaining to take a run on the river, and because – and this is the important part – we had no idea whose address this might be or why someone would set me in that direction, we pressed on. For all we knew, I had pissed off someone in town and he had an ambush ready for me, should I be so stupid as to go skipping to his front door. For a moment I thought perhaps Jenna had given me her address. That idea intrigued me. But I had her phone number already and, more, we had made plans, so that seemed unlikely.
The previous night’s dream had awakened me before dawn and left me more than a little tired. Halfway to Moab, as we roared along the Paradox Valley floor, I leaned on the car door and fell asleep. That was a mistake. The fog-shrouded trail returned and with it the figure at the fog’s edge. The unease surrounding the figure’s identity mixed with my memories of those NASA pictures of Bo and by the time we got to Moab and we were putting the raft in the rusty Colorado, I had a headache and could barely tell what was real and what was not. For a while I didn’t even know if the bit about the numbers had actually happened and I was afraid to ask Don for fear he’d say what are you talking about.