On today's full moon, together with best wishes to
all for a happy 4th of July, the fifty-sixth Moon Prize goes to Sharman Apt Russell's memoir excerpt "The
Desert Dreams of Flying to the Moon."
The Desert Dreams of Flying to the Moon
from People Who Live Inside You: a memoir of flight
Sharman Apt Russell
I am watching a YouTube video of
my father’s death. The film was made by the United
States Air Force in 1956 and declassified over fifty years later so I can see
it now on my computer screen at home. The heavy B-50 flies alone through the
gray-toned sky before releasing the small experimental X-2, designed to glide
until its rocket engines
power, explode, and push the plane forward. Silently, without music or narration, the X-2
flashes into the distance, sleek with pointed nose and swept-back wings, faster,
faster, over three times the speed of sound, faster than any human being has
flown before. At the end of this test flight, the X-2 is meant to glide again,
landing on a dry lakebed at
Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. My father is the pilot. I
stare at the vanishing plane with a frisson of knowledge, holding on to the
moment before loss, and wanting to warn: Don’t go so fast today. I play with
time, wanting to change time and knowing I would be changing myself, something
I cannot really imagine. What would I be without a dead father?
Abruptly, the videoshows
footage from inside the cockpit, a camera there positioned to view the instrument panel.
Here is the back of my father’s head. He is wearing a helmet, which moves
jerkily across the screen as the X-2 becomes unstable, rolls, gyrates, spins. No one knew this would happen.
That’s why someone had to test the plane. Part of the screen, now half the
screen, is a bright white light, irregular shapes of light fraught with meaning like an abstract
piece of art. Everything on that canvas is significant, emotional,
ineluctable. My father is being thrown about this tiny space filled with light.
In seconds, he is jettisoning the cone of the plane which also serves as an
That’s the last I see of him.
Rectangles, bright light, the
back of a head. For the next twenty minutes of this
video, the Air Force forensic team examine the debris
on the ground. There are slow pans over pieces of metal, a broken wing, the wreckage of the capsule. We
see its dark interior. Thankfully, we don’t
see much. Men take photographs. They stand around in groups of three, four,
eight. These men are everywhere on the dry lakebed, some wearing white shirts and ties, some in uniforms,
some carrying guns. They all
seem somber, puzzled, peering at crumpled
metal, reaching in, pulling out wires. A boxy helicopter kicks up dust. Other helicopters come and go. The film records the
departure of an ambulance-sized vehicle. Perhaps my father’s remains are being
taken away. More men trudge through sand, stare, murmur,
pick up something.
The Mojave Desert dwarfs this scene of busy hapless men.
The filmmakers seemed to want to show that, too, these undulations of hills and
mountains, layers of cinnamon-brown and chocolate-brown, sweeps
of monotonous light-green
creosote. This is the beauty of absence. The unadorned lift of granite and
basalt. The empty sky, the empty desert. Only you and I know better. We know
how the sky fills with high cirrus clouds, the virga of moisture evaporating as it falls, the great anvils of cumulonimbus. We know the scorpion and grasshopper mouse, the white-winged dove, the owl, the tortoise. We know better because we are
in love with this sky and with this land. Even now, from the distance of another
century, I can feel the
sun’s heat on my arm. I can smell creosote, a mix of
turpentine and lemon. I was two years old when my father crashed in the Mojave
Desert in the escape capsule of the X-2. I am sixty-five years old now. That
span of time is nothing. A rustle of leaves. A flash of light in the
corner of your eye.
My father was a Kansas farm boy.
The dry lakebed and bony horizon must have seemed as aliento him as
the moon. In the end, however, he also grew to love the desert, something I havelearned
only recently. I always knew, of course, that he loved the
sky. In home movies of flying, as a passenger in a cargo
transport or in a darling two-seater fighter plane, we
see many images of the sky, those high clouds, that cerulean blue. In othermovies of
family vacations—the blurred quality of
8-millimeter film now digitalized—he pauses briefly
at the figures of his wife and two little girls, the wife looking so happy, the
little girls like all little girls. Then he moves on to the thunderstorm over
Yellowstone National Park, the empty spaces of
the Grand Canyon.
We see him most clearly in these choices. We see him being
helped into his pressurized flight suit made for high altitudes, uncomfortable and skintight.
“You’ve got this hacked,
dad,” his chase pilot saysin
the slang of the day.Two chase planes will follow the experimental flight,
monitoring surfaces of the X-2 that the pilot can’t see, offering advice by
radio, helping out in an emergency landing. By now, 9 a.m., the little white research plane has been rolled under the belly of the B-50 and fitted into place. The most advanced aircraft of her day, the X-2 is only 44 feet long, with a 34 feet wingspan, already scuffed andnicked from a few bumpy experiences on the dry lakebed,
paint peeling on metal contracted by the fuel of liquid oxygen. She looks lived in. She looks
friendly. So often, my father has leaned his shoulder
against a wing, patted her flank, posed beside her.
Up in the air, at 35,000 feet, in the cockpit of the B-50,
wesee him say goodbyeto the pilot and co-pilot and start the crawl through the tunnel that runs
above the plane’s bomb bay. We see him descend a ladder into the cockpit of the X-2, his shoulders wedged into this cramped space. His face is covered by a
helmet and oxygen mask so that all we see now are his eyes. We see him
buckle his seatbelt. Someonein the B-50 closes the canopy over his head.
There is a long list of things to do—check pump number eleven, open drain switch, retract air scoops—and then the countdown. Five, four, three, two, one, drop away. There are years of training and the
possibility they will all end now. Test pilots died at the rate of one a week
in the heyday 1950s. The motto of those test pilots
was Ad explorata,
into the unknown, andin the drumbeat of preparing the X-2 for flight,
humming along with the precision and professionalism of the crew, there is always that. The pursuit of
revelation. Into the unknown.
As for the people my father left
behind, we will fashion our
own beauty and meaning from those accumulated moments: kiss your wife goodbye, climb into the cockpit,
fly over the Earth faster than any human being has flown before, eject the
escape capsule, hit the ground. My sister dreams that
he returns to her a few days later. Sitting on her bedthat
night, he tells her everything will be okay. Okay is
what the five-year-old hears. In my crib nearby, I am dreaming, too. Outside
our window, the desert is dreaming. In the small trim
houses and dormitories and hospital at Edwards Air
Force Base, thesoldiers and pilots and mechanics
and administrators and doctors and nurses and their families are dreaming. All
of us, flying and dreaming.
* * * *
Sharman Apt Russell is the author of a dozen books
translated into nine languages. Her Diary of a Citizen Scientist(Oregon State University Press, 2014) won the John
Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. Her Within Our Grasp: The Revolution to End
Childhood Malnutrition (Pantheon
Books, 2021) combines her interest in the environment
and in hunger. Recent fiction includes the award-winning Knocking on Heaven’s Door
(Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), an eco-sci-fi set in a Paleo-terrific future, and
her YA Teresa
of the New World (Skyhorse
Publishing, 2015), a story of plagues and the
dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest.See www.sharmanaptrussell.com