Skylab & Feather: Reflections on Skylab Falling, and a Long-Dead Father.
If a person falls freely, he won’t feel his own weight.
A house on a horseshoe-shaped drive, in the Valley Forge section of the Mainline, Pennsylvania, a tract house—à la 1950s Levittown—mod under jumbo ham radio antennas and the sag of back-and-forth wires, power lines, 1973, sometime in high summer, at oh–dark thirty.
If you walk through the back screen door & glance at the sky, it’s up there, early in its 1,200 circles around Earth that eventually cover a staggering 890,000,000 miles—Skylab—with its mysterious dark angles and lens that see more than any eye, anywhere, in the history of the world, Skylab, slow dancing in the deeps of space 270 miles up, floating as if on a raft of vegetation down a tropical river. It stays past the atmosphere waiting on word to plunge. 2,249 days up there on a dark to darked-out course. You can get used to anything. A one Charles S. Harlan, mission controller, will talk later about it disappearing as if in a parlor trick: “We assume Skylab is on the planet Earth, somewhere.”
QTH? What is your location? It had been slowly descending.
For now, there’s another movement from one point to another: in the same gravity it’s Feather, making way up the basement stairs from around the world. CQ and other dits and dahs loud, shrill from the rogue black hole cellar, what you can hear from any point in the house any hour wafts up with him, mixes with transistor songs, top 40. The CQs: the internationally used call for “I seek you”, a general call to anyone listening that you want contact with.
He was seeking, there was no one there, so he came up the stairs.
But that wasn’t it, was it. No.
It’s Feather, my father, doing a doe-see-doe. He’s either doing a doe-see-doe or he can’t walk straight—not now, not ever—because the world has tilted on its axis. Then he halts, as if his position had been fixed by satellite, and Justerini & Brooks, a lowgrade winter-sun-colored liquid. That’s “Whisky” for “W” in NATO and international aviation. (That’s “William” in Western Union, for the man who would replace Feather.)
Likely, it’s Lightfoot on the kitchen transistor, playing off WFIL:
Sometimes I think it’s a shame, When I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain, Sometimes I think it’s a sin, When I feel like I’m winnin’ when I’m losin’ again.
He toddles into view. The kitchen, with his cup. Empty. He moves in a decaying velocity over a flat patch of linoleum then heaves to a stop, as if caught in a trajectory anomalie. Slippery—like daddy long legs. His body isn’t able to maintain the center of gravity on either leg. It’s liquid heaviness. Undertow. The early stages of his physical disappearance. The tightness pulling across his bones, the stomach going Kwashiorkor. Black hair Grecian slicked back from the forehead. The wise-guy look. Malarial-like saturation sweats complete his personal spectacle this evening. The dengue fever look, laggard. He is spatially contingent. He is presence and absence combined. The morphing that is always there, werewolfish, the disappearing and arriving a peculiar form of meningism.
He needs quarantined.
Meneges: birds who go rabid. Their heads get exposed to something not right and irreversible and a feather falls off, then more expel, the last of a bird’s ganglion withers out, and soon you have a crow careening bareback down the blue molecules. Whole flocks can lose it at once, and, deciding their game-plan beforehand, go tropo in a single coordinated dive-bomb for what’s shiny that might glint back their reflection: plate glass windows, mirrors of an edge city sky rise, or into big rig windshields down I-80. You’ll see the splatter, the spread wings of decaying birds. Sometimes they aim for each other in a sort of en-specie-mini-exorcism, feathers shed one by one like bloodstained limbs off the men at Vicksburg.
Why does it sound like something is always falling?
The telephone before the telephone, the internet before the internet, his ham radios sat atop card tables: Heathkit and Hallicrafters, the Zenith and Allied Radio Corporation rigs, Raytheon tubes, transceivers, receivers, tuners, cables, connectors, the modulation frequencies, the repeaters, meters with the dashing back & forth red spiked lines’ left to right sway and swing, the meter needle bangs against the zero-stop, the green glow at night, the white diffuse light, the red as red illumination as the color gets in the dark, the tuning the knobs, the coaxial, QRJ Are you receiving me badly? Are my signals weak?, the disappointment at the lost signals mid-air, the interrupted and cut-off transmissions, the sorrow. The hunched-overness, the crouching over a fire so small as to be almost useless when a signal gets lost, the continuous wave wrist motion on the key in trying for contact again and again. (The watts. Always the watts. Were the watts enough. You have a brown mouse you’ll name Watts.) Then the asking for a QSL card that proves the conversation took place on which frequency and when.
He had a map tacked up for when he’d get a QSL card in the mail from, say, Canada. He had a file. He knew where his contacts were. His logbook of the world. WA3RCD was his callsign, his QSL card featuring a design he chose: spindly red, white, and blue lines spread out over the globe rising in oblong hope through the white sky background. Like upper atmosphere ley lines. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) in a faraway state in a town called Newington, but us? We were local. We were the wires, the outlets, the giant antennas on the roof with transmissions that knocked out the neighbor’s TV and radio, but most of all that sound. The dits and dahs like starlings too long awake when you tried to sleep. Constant. Shrieking. Chirping. Loud. Starlings. From. Two. Flights. Down. In your fifth decade, you’ll still have his call sign down: repeat on demand, even almost miss the sound. Almost.
From all his six-foot-four height, it’s over one fathom down to the ground. The black bruised tibias, the badly cut out areas, the dark red scabs. Rippled lava, spurts of dark red flame. The gash to the bone again and again. Tripping, falling. And the unexplained nail tracks on his face. Beadlike scars from a tribe he must have got separated from. The whole being another color and shape than what it should be.
His left leg shoved against the cabinet; he needs its solidity, like ground appeared to have given way beneath him. Feet side-angled in those blue boat Keds, left hand stretching outward for the J&B. He picks up the bottle and rotates it every couple of seconds as if simulating earth’s spin, covering exactly the points of the four cardinal directions in effigy. Or like he had halfway planned the following of his own funerary rites, parodically. Holds it to the ceiling, knowing that’s where the main light comes from. Sheer incline. Turns it this way and that, waits for something to happen.
He needs to see what’s left.
You get up from the table by the window with the curtains that look like tiny clothed skies. Go a few steps away and over to where he stands, sullen. You have to see what’s what. You’re eleven. And you want to learn some new things. You notice, but don’t, the umbra; the starting-to-yellowness off his face and arms the way copper changes color as it oxidizes. A pitch to the skin that shows it is not far ahead, a glare more noticeable in the pitch-day sun. He’s not out much. You can’t know he has a series of springs, summers, falls, winters, then that’s it—whittling down body parts until broken down red blood cells and bile acids alter his pigment to a deep corn color darker than the yellow off any J&B label. That that’s the same as in-utero motion that lines the swirled patterns onto birds’ eggs. His meninges is exposed to it all now and irreversibly. What’s left to say when the ground is about to get hit.
Still he holds it over us in the height of the sky; we are three stars in a cluster. The eye’s ability to focus on nearby objects compromised, walleyed, the ceiling, whirling. Our faces tuned upward. He’s toasting the sky with a baby in palm, arm up, and it rose even further into kitchen ceiling air where it stayed, motionless, vertical, suspended; he leers at its innards in a long drawn-out way, swept up in the arcana of whiskey-scout.
Turns it back over to almost glide out of clutch like a salmon, then in a flourish, screws off the cap he might mistake for a fat Russian olive. Orients it over what little Scotch the cup has left, lingers closer in, tips it lower, directly over what little liquid is left, directly inside the cup now, hung open, as if it had a second mouth there. At first it went fast down the bottle innards, like a shooting star. Drops of iridescent petroleum, maybe, a sort of phosphorescence behind the dark seaglass green. Drips devolve to just a flash here, there, gleam like miniature suns and then their slow—so slow—pathos-filled—slow pilgrimage dead shot down into the cup. The fabric of space stretching with each trickle-drip out the bottle-sky. Leaving a split-second star shaped surface when they land. It’s one by one now, with time between sightings, like lightning streaks in a slow storm.
He’s getting to the end.
In reverence to it, as if this beverage was the root at the formation of the universe. Before everything blistered. The lower tips of stars that finally came down to earth as promised in children’s books. All will be ..-./-… FB, fine business, until it’s gone.
For ten seconds, there is no past, present, future, only everything all at once.
Time, like the Nile, seems to have neither beginning nor end.
Time drops its linearity.
The dimensions of the room are off.
Longitudinal coordinates down. Latitude lost.
Dropped into a place of being that doesn’t exist to the rest of the world.
The ethereal inertia of movement everywhere.
We are in the things between life and death.
We are hell and gone.
In the field outside of where everyone else is.
There’s that, and nothing more.
It’s all cordoned off now, the blanket of air that surrounds the world.
Us, rigid, no longer breathing, gazing at the bottle as it goes empty then emptier, hollowing out like his insides are coming out with the bottle.
He has become something completely outside of himself.
A large, flightless bird.
He knows how it looks to you—inadvertent auteur to his ad hoc moment—and perhaps attempting to ennoble, to place the matter beyond doubt, he goes salutary. Postures of sound now. In the flat accent of alcoholism, in a spaced-out sodium pentothal voice:
“Gud tuh tha lass drup,” he declares. An evangelicism.
Means, “Good to the last drop.”
…A personal epigraph…the last drop…A mongrelization of syllables and launch codes…Zombified, ethanol-marinated, starring in a twisted kind of 70s Folger’s commercial from his lair in the Scotch cosmos.
He takes what remains. Pours it in the mouth. Lurches it around in there a good long while before swallowing.
A time disruption of some sort happens, a sorcery, elongates this scene, transmogrifies this otherworldliness into a hyperreal memory, an earliest memory (the mind has started its own distance from the scene, and as if rising from the bottom of a dream the mind has started splitting away, building itself a new dimensional plane where—while you are still in-scene—you vow to never forget this strange standing here tonight even though you don’t know why it’s off, but that it is, even if already miraging, and you’ll just have to figure it out later, when old enough to know how these things work and what they matter, to who, and why, and about the degree of probability and the role of chance, whether he meets the requirements for statutory insanity, or you, or your family, because you were born into this, and what anyone’s chances are, or the rate at which stars explode in the Scotch cosmos), and store this with how to send a CQ and a mayday, with Look twice both ways before crossing the street from sea to shining sea, which eventually turns to Cross the street without looking because you’ll never cross otherwise. But for now, Vidi et scio. An instinctual knowledge shoots into you he will go down in drink. That he will, someday, bleed from within, exitus into a self-embalming.
And it turns for you right then: you are the material witness to irrecoverably dark and unkillable hijinks you have no name or location for. It had nothing to do with anything you knew, so outside it all yet dead center.
You have no idea what you saw but you did.
And nights like this don’t move. They don’t bend. They don’t break. They don’t even try. Unique in their ability to affect the space-time continuum.
For the rest of your life you will think about this one.
Gud tuh tha lass drup.
Roger that, copy.
You have an old photograph, a found footage of an ancient civilization, of the way the kitchen used to look, Pompeii it was. Of the cabinet where the metal handles still catch the light, Folger’s coffee sits by a toaster next to the too-tall wood pepper shaker you could never get to work right to call down the black specs. And there it stays, the omnipresent J&B, linked by a common body, his dropped shadow hovering in the pixels. A specter. He’s moved past his shadow like it detached.
And, inexplicably, in this photo a flashlight someone stood upright in the center of the counter, having looked for something in the dark and found it, or not.
On the wall overlooking all that, inches from the booze, in a wind that can’t reach us now, seagulls still constrained by gravity in the white, white, light voyage from one side to the other of a plaque nailed so you can’t miss it about how the wind may always be at your back and the road might rise up to meet you. With some branches and twigs in a circle on the ground. Looking like the interior of a nest. With nothing in it.
Fare-thee-well, oh, ad infinitum. Platitudes fall opposite the direction of the falling world. Writhe away from the horizon. What’s left to say when the ground has been hit.
The hand closed on air. When he mumbled, “No, thank you” and turned down a small, dark street sometime in the 70s.
But I’ll tell you. What we’re asked to live? It’s not enough. And it’s too much.
It’s just a raw black thread strung out across the atmosphere. Working its way to the ground.
A black blowfly arrives within one hour after death.
For now, after spacewalking with a parasol and photographing the oldest light in the universe, after in-vitro immunology tests, red blood cell life span studies, clocking the circadian rhythm of pocket mice, after observing guppies swim abnormal patterns, then taking care of the alarmingly titled crew vehicle disturbance—after told to work through rest periods and meals, after hiding spacesickness, astronauts strike for one day, silence ground control to throw velcro–tipped darts in zero gravity, bet on poker, gaze portside at Comet Kohoutek as it zooms past. The three astronauts don’t discern they’re bugged; the mic is open to Houston the entire eighty-four days, relaying every word between them ala space cowboy Watergate, Universal Time. Taking You’ll never work in this town again to the literal level.
Meanwhile, NASA tells the masses they’ll program the space station to stop the thing when they want to, freefall it—77 tons—out of the very air into salt-saturated water somewhere. And short a nuclear attack or a wayward asteroid, nothing as fearsome gapes down (T-minus 1 in 600 billion any-particular-person-being-hit odds, and a 1 in 7 shot the debris will thwack a city of 100,000, but a 1 in 152 chance of human injury). We divide time on seven continents below wearing bullseye-graphic caps and tees which make it unnervingly real. It may remain aloft. Or it may not; the sunspot-changing-gravity-thing means it’s not stable anymore. A red circle speeding up faster. The nightly news reports, Jennings-Brokaw in a thousand-yard convict stare in the monitor announcing And now, a Special Bulletin…
Amid the hype, the special bulletins 24/7, the word on the street, you are in San Francisco, tail end of a long stay with your brother. And you and your brother knew not to book your flight home for that day. You tell him you were apprehensive about it anyway, because what if it’s not down? He insists it will have fallen by the time you board the plane. He laughs. And laughs… as you hover by the wall where his phone is attached and your arm rises of its own volition to grab the receiver down and dial the United Airlines number in your left hand. You are so funny, his baby sister!
Ninety percent of the world’s population-—that’s 4 billion people—are theoretically at risk, the newsman reads to America. 260 miles an hour. Skylab was launched in 1973 to explore the problems of men living for long periods in space. The solar wind has forced Skylab down faster than gravity would normally do.
That 117 foot long, 90 ton piece of metal isn’t aiming for your United flight. But if they can’t find it the eleventh, the day you’re supposed to leave San Francisco, it means it’s still falling. Or hasn’t managed to dislodge its course yet. It means it could drop on your Boeing. How is that prospect humorous?
The next day you’ll awaken at 4:40 a.m. for that plane back East. Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, is currently on the loose, maybe in your Marina neighborhood, so really, it’s a toss-up where safety lies. Air, land, sea, west coast, east.
Flight’s full of rambunctious men you take for cattle ranchers. You write you “…want to stow away, or do it the Parallax View way by writing on a napkin, ‘There’s a bomb on this plane.’” Then the stewardesses would walk the napkin up to the cockpit. Soon an announcement: ‘Due to technical difficulties, we are returning to San Francisco International Airport.’”
Then, “You’ve not lived until you have put on mascara on a plane over Nevada with turbulence.”
July 11, 1979, you’ll write, “SKYLAB DOWN. Fell in the Indian Ocean.” After solar activity finishes having its way with it, when its orbit has dragged on too long, the hand closed on air. A 4 percent calculating error turns the 800 mile off Cape Town target into Perth; it disintegrates a nigh ten miles above Earth. It breaks up in the atmosphere, pieces of it wiped out somewhere toward a last point. Most are never found. One pilot watches it turn away from the horizon, and a handful of folks happen to look up right then at a flash; they’re fireworks, the pieces. Red coal eyes blinking at them. Or a suture rupture, reptilian pattern. As if the sky bled from defense wounds. The feeling of backward falling watching the sky come down.
What if the people who saw it never said so. And each piece that washed up stayed missing forever. Just imagine.
July 11, 1980: He goes supernova. In the emergency room’s firing range lights, an enraged animal with the hunters trying to pull him in. Blood erupts from his nose and mouth like ebola, his face red against the white: Esophageal Rupture. His face the color of cartoon blood.
The sheets are specked, a second skin with spots that show up on skin from internal hemorrhage. Like he took on a high-velocity hollow point.
There it is.
That’s a 73, out. “This is the end of my transmission to you and no answer is required or expected.”
SK. Silent key. A deceased radio amateur.
Toe tag and release. He’s gone, absorbed by his night at last.
“Dad died at 11:30 this afternoon. The last words I heard him say were ‘yellow thing’ as in the plastic pan he was throwing up in. They gave him something like six pints of blood and did everything they could. Put a balloon down his throat to his stomach, but everything collapsed about six this morning. He was in a coma during this but it was a painful death. He was holding Mom’s hand and he was saying he was scared. I just wish he wasn’t scared and didn’t feel the pain. It was terrible. I just have this nagging feeling there was something more they could have done but I guess not. I got really calm around 12:15 this morning. I was 99 percent sure he was going to die. We stayed until 2 a.m.. I made a couple trips from the waiting room to the car with his stuff—the plants and books and cards. Dad kept biting the doctor’s fingers and apologizing when the balloon thing was going down. It was to stop the blood. We picked out a casket. Mom didn’t want me to see Dad at the hospital. I wanted to. I’ll see him tomorrow at the funeral home. I just think it will finalize it somewhat. I believe it, but when I picture him, I can’t believe he’s dead. It’s going to be so hard. All the times when Mom and Dad, or Mom and herself were in a fight, she’d yell, ‘I wish you were dead.’ She got her wish. I don’t think she wants her wish now.”
What if the people who saw it never said.
Cheyenne Nimes is working on a book about the American Civil War. She lives by the Great Salt Lake.