So…here starts a new story. Probably need four chapters to wrap it up, and this is a short one today so a Coke will probably do the job. I guess if you need some music George Harrison will be the obvious choice, or you can try this for a change of pace.
Right…off we go.
Part I: Photons
Leaves of poplars pick Japanese prints against the west.
Moon sand on the canal doubles the changing pictures.
The moon’s good-bye ends pictures.
The west is empty. All else is empty. No moon-talk at all now.
Only dark listening to dark.
Carl Sandburg Moonset
It had been, oddly enough, the moon that first captured the little boy’s imagination. Hanging up there in the sky as he waited for sleep, waiting in the shadows of dreams waiting to be.
“A man in the moon? Oh, really? Where?” he remembered crying, once upon a time.
“It’s right there! Can’t you see him?”
“No! What are you talking about?!”
Even then the myths so casually passed along made no sense to the boy. Because, he realized, the people who pretended to know everything really didn’t seem to know very much at all.
But…there had to be more.
There just had to be more to it than their lies and evasions.
An odd encounter. With, of all things, a telescope. On a camping trip with friends in Cub Scouts.
A kindly old man with a pristine four inch refractor set-up on the simplest alt-az mount imaginable, yet when he first set his eyes on the moon through that telescope he felt his entire world shift underfoot. He’d stared at the crescent orb for so long his eyes almost hurt, trying to memorize everything he saw. He realized sometime during the night that he never wanted this journey to end.
Books followed, leading to his first steps on the way he’d chosen. Simple books with big pictures because, after all, he was only a second-grader. An Atlas of the Moon waited for him under the tree the very next Christmas, and just five months later he watched as Alan Shepard and Freedom 7 kicked off a mad decade of exploration and experimentation – everything coming into sharp relief when Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took a stroll on his beloved moon.
His father was a physicist; his mother a physician; both taught at Stanford. He grew up on a tree-lined street in Menlo Park, California, and in schools teeming with bright students he was considered the brightest star of them all. He’d developed a profound intuition for mathematics, especially for the calculus, by the time he left grade school. He learned to play the piano simply in order to explore the mathematical possibilities within music notation and was considered something of a prodigy – until he grew bored with music’s limited range of expression.
And still he turned his eyes to the sky, but almost always to the moon.
Until one night, on a field trip to the Mount Lick Observatory just east of San Jose.
The boy had, of course, seen pictures of globular clusters, and he’d even looked at M13 through a small telescope once before, but the experience had been underwhelming – and so he’d thought little of them since. Until that first night up at Lick.
One of the twenty-inch astrographs was being collimated that night, so no cameras were attached as technicians and astronomers aligned and realigned set screws on the delicate front objective, and actual eyepieces were being used to fine tune the scopes final alignment. At one point, when the boy happened to be standing nearby, this team of astronomers pointed the ‘scope at Eta Herculis, then at M13 – the primary globular cluster in the Hercules asterism – and then one of the astronomers looked down and asked the boy if he might want to look at something interesting.
“Of course I would,” the boy said as he made his way up to the viewing platform.
“Well then, try this out for size.”
Eugene Sherman made his way to the eyepiece and after just a few seconds observing the cluster he knew his world had shifted once again, then he turned to the other astronomers up there with him and he smiled.
“Do you have a bigger telescope?” Eugene Sherman asked.
The boy was only a little surprised when his question caused all the other astronomers to break out in gales of knowing laughter.
Yet Saturday mornings in autumn were the best days of all.
Because from the time he first sat sit on his father’s knee, when the Stanford Cardinals were playing at home he and his Old Man made their way over to the stadium to catch the game. When “Gene” Sherman was just starting out in elementary school they started throwing the football, and by the time he went to middle school he was good enough to play quarterback, and he only improved with time. By his junior year, by the time he was ready to think about college, schools like Harvard and MIT wanted him. So did Stanford and even Princeton.
Only…Gene Sherman had decided he wanted to go to Annapolis, because by then he’d decided he wanted to be an astronaut. He wanted to walk on the moon. He wanted to build an observatory up there, too, and he figured he was probably the best person for the job. But getting into Annapolis wasn’t as straight forward a thing as getting into Harvard or MIT. Getting into a service academy meant getting appointed by a member of congress, so this he set out to do…in the same patient, methodical way he’d turned to whenever he really wanted to get something done right the first time.
And so he made it in, and he reported for duty in August, 1972.
He played football. He studied astronomy and physics, and because this was the Naval Academy, he studied aeronautical engineering, too. When it became more than apparent there was no way into the astronaut corp without first completing test pilot school, which of course meant becoming a Naval Aviator, he set out to do this, too – though there were some in the great scheme of things who were disappointed by his choice. They’d seen him working in more theoretical realms, more than likely working to develop a new sort of satellite based navigation system, but they had decided to let him pursue his dreams – for now. He’d earned that much respect and consideration, or so they said.
So…off the boy went, to Pensacola – because, by his best calculation, that was still the best way to the stars.
April, 1979. Strait of Hormuz. Sitting in the cockpit of an A-6E on Cat 1 aboard the Coral Sea. Three in the morning and the temperature was almost ninety degrees; with the canopy retracted air dripping with humidity was pouring onto his face, and sweat was rolling down his neck and from there down into his flight suit.
Gene “Tank” Sherman was flying Texaco this morning, waiting for the word to launch and get airborne so his Intruder could refuel the ready flight that had launched fifty minutes ago. Iranians had been holding the US Embassy in Tehran for almost three months, and tensions were high, the mood on the streets ugly. And his squadron – VA-165 – had been tasked to bomb airfields in and around Tehran…should the need arise…and everyone on board hoped the need was there. Because they were ready. And because everyone wanted revenge, blood was in the air – all the time now.
‘Even I do, too,’ Sherman said to himself. ‘But why? Why another war when there’s so much else we need to be working on…?’
He leaned back and found Hercules up there in the early morning sky, and out here hundreds of miles from land he could see M13 with his eyes…a faint little smudge hanging up there – almost right where his heart should be…but that didn’t make sense. Did it?
Nothing made sense. Not now.
Apollo…canceled. No more moon shots. Just more war. And something new was in the works, something they were starting to call a space shuttle, but this latest thing looked like just another black hole, another government boondoggle designed to spread pork all over the aerospace industry. Damn! Even Stanley Kubrick could see the future better than the morons at NASA! We need infrastructure…up there – in space…in orbit – so we can built things up there…and not a taxi to nowhere! And no more ‘meet ’n greets’ with the goddamn commies!
‘Two years of my life…spent out here,’ he thought, sighing as he watched M13 slide behind another wall of cloud.
“Well, ain’t life grand?” his navigator said – just as the carrier sailed into a wall of cool, deep fog. “I didn’t think fog made it this far north?”
“An eddy in the current,” Sherman said, “but it won’t last.”
Then the CAG up in Pri-Fli came on over the radio. “Our Phantoms just reported two, possibly four Bogeys just went airborne, lighting them up. Launch the tanker, standby to launch Alert Three and Four.”
“They be playing our song, Tank,” Pete “Putter” Masters, his navigator, said.
Sherman secured the canopy and checked lock on the wings once again, and when he got the all clear from the deck-apes he started engine one, watching the tape come up to 40% and hold steady. He looked right and got the all clear and rolled two, watching power come up and stabilize. After the JBD, or the Jet Blast Deflector came up he added power slowly to FMP, or Full Military Power, before dropping back down to 60% for the hold. The F-4N on Cat 2 ran up to FMP and as suddenly cut back, and that was that. Now it was his turn.
Power to FMP again and watch the tapes for ten seconds, then he looked at the ape crouching out there almost on the edge of the flight deck, the wands in his hands beating out the rhythm of the fight. He saluted as he flipped the nose gear light on and off, then pushed back in his seat, waiting for the…
…slam in the back…that kick in the ass…and he fixed his eyes on his panel because out here on the other side of the glass there was nothing but black. Pure, solid black fog.
‘Positive rate,’ he said to himself, ‘gear up, trim up, flaps and slats up. Check vertical rate, start a gradual turn ten to the left and climb to Angels Five.’
“Outta the fog,” Masters said a moment later.
“Got it,” he said, still not taking his eyes off the panel, not yet. Heading 340, angle of attack five degrees up, climb at 215 KIAS. “Man, this pig is wallowing tonight,” he said a minute later, when he could finally breathe easily again.
“Yeah-man. We there yet?”
“Call it thirty seconds, then start your track.”
“Got it,” Sherman said as he zeroed out his clocks, keeping one eye on the altimeter and the other scanning the sky…then he started his hack and began a slow, standard rate 180 to the left.
Then the E-2B from VAW-117 came on the net. “Boomer 5-0-2, Banger-3, come right to 0-3-0, signal Buster, repeat Buster, inbound flight Bingo.”
“5-0-2 to 0-3-0 Buster,” Sherman replied, turning hard and adding power.
“502, 3, Reaper 2-0-2 reports three Bandits now up and heading for the merge. Ready Three and Four have the intercept. 2-0-2 took a hit, needs a visual for BD.”
“5-0-2, make it Angels 10.”
“5-0-2 to 10.”
“5-0-2, call it fifty miles now.”
“5-0-2, got it.” Sherman replied as he started his climb from five to ten thousand feet.
“Picking up four airborne sets,” Putter said, “and they look like that new AWG-9 set in the -14,” – indicating there were at least two hostile aircraft up right now with advanced search radars operating, because Iran now had four operational squadrons of F-14As – all of them fully armed with the latest American air-to-air weaponry…and all of that vastly superior hardware courtesy of the now-deposed Shah. Coral Sea’s Phantoms in VF-21 were F-4N models, with 60s vintage avionics and radar, and they were no match for a Tomcat’s Phoenix long range fire control system.
“5-0-2, come right to 1-7-5, speed 220, set pos now.”
“5-0-2 right to 175, 220 and we’re lighting up now.”
“Reaper 2-0-2, got your lights, gimme 1500.”
“Reaper 2-0-2, 1500 set, drogue one out, advise…”
“Banger-3…Break-break! Two launches, I think they’re…check that…two confirmed AIM-54s in the air, track while scan mode is active…”
“Reaper 2-0-2 breaking right!”
“Boomer 5-0-2 going left,” Sherman added, launching chaff and flares as his Intruder broke formation. He climbed left and rolled inverted, starting a dive to the hard deck and sending out packets of chaff along the way when he felt heat all along the left side of his body, then Putter shouting “Eject…eject…eject!”
And then – salt. Salt water. Sea water.
He opened his eyes, tried to turn his head but everything hurt.
“You okay?” he saw Putter asking as he swam up to him.
“I can’t hear,” he managed to say – just before the light came for him.
He recognized the lights overhead. He was in an operating room, and people were moving him from a gurney to an operating table.
‘This can’t be good,’ he thought, then he saw people talking before he realized he couldn’t hear a damn thing they were saying. Then he realized his left leg really hurt and he tried to lift his head to take a look…
…then explosions of hot light filled his mind’s eye, and as suddenly he started vomiting.
‘Sea water? I’m barfing up sea water?’
Helping hands held his face while others turned him on his right side, and then waves of pain crushed him and held him down under an impossible weight. Then people were helping him onto his back again, and a mask went over his mouth and nose as an IV was inserted in his left forearm. He was awash in enveloping warmth after that, so he was never aware that his left leg was being amputated just above the knee.
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