They sat, huddled around the television, patients and nurses together. Gasps and sighs of uncomprehending wonder filled the rehabilitation ward. Prosthetic limbs and doctor’s charts for the moment discarded, lying forgotten on the polished, mahogany floor, as all sat watching, transfixed on these two men in white, setting down upon the moon, as if anything were possible.
21st July 1969, 10.56pm. St Bartholomew’s Rehabilitation Hospital. Ward B.
Behind awe-filled eyes, other more sinister thoughts still continued to stir in broken minds. On the day when ‘possibility thrived’, impossibility still lived, hiding behind disbelieving smiles. For some of the residential patients in St Bart’s the world was still just as black as the dark side of the moon.
Sgt Eldrick Thompson, or Patient 0295, with disbelieving eyes glued to the flittering movement of what they called the lunar module, now sat the way he always had as a young kid, with the chair turned the wrong way round and arms folded across what was supposed to be the back support. It had always annoyed his mother. When he looked down, for the very briefest of moments, he had seen his own fourteen-year-old sneakered feet on the floor below him, in the Nikes he’d loved, size 8, as they once had been. But Eldrick knew that he was seeing only what used to be, translucent apparitions of the past. The commentators buzzed about these brave astronauts about to set foot on the moon. Eldrick longed only to set foot on the earth below his knees. But that was a reality even more impossible than these adventures in space.
He wondered how much of himself he’d left there, in the jungle he still couldn’t escape, as he watched the Eagle’s descent toward the moon. The battle had taken place on Dong Ap Bia (or ‘Hamburger Hill’, as it would soon become immortalized as). Eldrick had known it, more simply, as ‘Hill 937’. There was a time when he too had thought anything was possible, he considered, as he watched the men in white begin their descent to the dusty lunar surface. There had once been a time when, like a young fool, he had made his own descent, in jungle green rather than space-white. He’d believed that there could be victory in the Vietnamese jungles, like the rest of them. That hope had been destroyed by the elephant grass and what had been hidden inside it.
Eldrick still remembered the young fool who had started off for the Indo-China Peninsula the previous summer. He still remembered beaming that goofy, pot-holed smile as he set down on the asphalt of the ‘U-Tapao Navy Airfield’, ready for B-52 transfer to join the other grunts on the front-line. Even the smothering humidity hadn’t dampened the sincerity of that eager smile. That lost eighteen year-old had harbored a naivety that now made him wince with embarrassment. He hated that damned kid!
Now sat in the rigid, hardwood chair, his own prosthetic legs propped up beside him, he watched patiently as the ‘Eagle’ edged closer and closer towards the lunar surface. As he stared at the dark images and heard mission-control communication via radio transmission (a sound which he’d become so familiar with himself), he found himself conjuring blurred green and orange shapes once again, ghostly shapes of blurred explosion and jutting gunfire, which leapt out from television-feed’s blank black canvas of space. He winced and began to re-live the horrors once more (he couldn’t help it) as the black and white feed turned to jungle-green and fire-orange Technicolor. He willed the ghosts to disappear.
He supposed that his blood (which had run from his thighs like two streaming bath taps) still stained the dense foliage camouflaging Hamburger Hill. It wasn’t the only part of him that was still there; his mind still couldn’t escape the elephant grass (that in some areas was taller than the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier he often rode on). Advancing on the orders of the Company Captain, Eldrick, and the others in his small band, had moved vigilantly up the highly-sloped hill, and, pitted against the well-entrenched VPA troops, had navigated their way through the bottle-green foliage. The rain came down in torrents which exploded on the thick, waxy leaves and caused the elephant grass to bow, as if in mock-greeting. Welcome to the jungle.
Then came the explosion. Eldrick heard it before he felt it and wondered where it had come from. Then he felt the pain…
A murmur amongst the amputees brought Eldrick back to reality once more.
Houston had reported to the live world-audience that Armstrong and Aldrin were passing landmarks on the surface ‘4 seconds early’. They were ‘long’, apparently, a term repeated over again. They would land miles west of their target point according to the anxious voice on the television. Eldrick knew all about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Diane Vickery, Patient 0349, sat and watched the action on the small portable television in the seat to Eldrick’s right. All evening she’d watched, fascinated, as ‘The Eagle’ had moved through the blackness of space; anxiety had suddenly filled the shattered ward, one so often full of desperation, angst and tears. Unexpected alarms onboard the module had caused their fragile hearts to flutter, as they watched together. Murmurs rose again in St Bart’s Exercise Ward as another bleating alarm started, piercing the reporter’s progress update and throwing him into a spasm of live-feed panic. The alarms indicated, what the reporter now called, ‘executive overflows’, as the scientists buzzed in his ear. It sounded serious. Diane Vickery was used to alarms from her time in the high-dependency ward.
Inside the ‘Mission Control Center’ in Houston, a serious-faced computer engineer told the T.V. reporter that there was ‘no major problem’ and that it was safe to continue the descent. Diane wasn’t sure that she could take any more news of possible hiccups. She would have lifted her arms to cover her eyes had they not been removed. So she sat and watched through half-closed eyes.
The old magazines and newspapers on the ash coffee-table in front of her (such collections on magazine tables were common in hospitals the length and breadth of the country) had initially sent anger brewing through her recovering mind. It was yet another sign of impossibility, in a new world of many. The very sight of them and their secrets had made her weep, another torment of her hopeless condition. Like so many other things, she’d never have the dexterity to turn pages again. At first she’d considered asking them to get rid of it, but she’d learned to accept that she couldn’t just rid the world of the numerous reminders of her limitations.
But, with time, practice (and a good dose of perseverance), she’d been finally able to turn the thicker front-pages of those darned magazines, that had mocked her with their secret articles, with what was left of her arms. Albeit clumsily, and not with page-to-page fluency, she read anything she turned to, to dispel the demons. She still remembered the first article that she’d finally managed to get to. It was an obituary. Typical! Boris Karloff had died that February. She hadn’t taken much notice at the time (she’d had other problems), but now, as she watched these adventures in space, he came back into in her mind. There was something about the scientific equipment in that large room in Houston (‘Mission Control’ they had called it) that made her think of Karloff’s monster coming alive. He’d had scientific equipment too, he was breaking scientific impossibilities, albeit if only in fiction. These days she had more sympathy for the dead, unsurprising since she’d come so close herself. She remembered, vividly now, Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster in the infamous 1931 film and, briefly, thought how closely she must have resembled him after the trampling.
Then her mind drifted back to that horrid day, as she watched The Eagle’s slow descent toward the moon; she remembered the final moments of her old life. An old world that soon erupted in the forefront of her rewinding mind and all those old voices of anger and dissent, brutal voices from the past, sounded in her ears once more…
As a proud African-American North-Carolina student, studying at Duke University, she had regarded her presence at the black-student demonstration and taking possession of the Allen Building, as vitally important, symbolic. She had been determined to lend her support and her voice to the non-violent protest. Perhaps it would finally spark University-action regarding the ridiculous limit on enrollment numbers of African-Americans, and highlight the meager financial support offered to them. It was something that had affected her own life. She’d got in because of her grades, but she was flat broke. Attending the protest was a decision Diane would later regret, probably for the rest of her life. Perhaps she had lived in an unrealistic world back then – she had believed that if her intentions were for the greater good, and against such tyrannical idealism, it was a good idea to protest and lend her voice.
She could still picture the face of the senior university representative, selected by the administrative powers sent out to be the voice of reason. He had spoken to them very civilly, at first, pleading with them to leave the building and inviting them to discuss these important matters amicably with the university. Diane remembered thinking their point had been made and it being time to pack up and leave. But others, had successfully convinced the group (about fifty strong, Diane remembered), and her, to stay awhile, just to demonstrate the gravity their concerns.
They renamed the building the ‘Malcolm X Liberation School’. ‘Maybe that’s what had caused the anger’, Diane wondered as she sat, still watching The Eagle’s descent. Their exit had finally come (as she hoped Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s soon would) and it had been peaceful in the early evening sun. She remembered telling some others that their point had been made, but a few determined to stay even longer. To add the exclamation mark to their point. That was when things took a bad turn.
A large crowd of students unhappy at the protest had gathered outside. It seemed as if their peaceful rally had upset many; renaming the school probably hadn’t helped. Diane remembered the police lines trying to usher her away to safety in the seconds before the stampede came. Diane saw the danger approaching early and, taking the officer’s advice, turned to flee the university lawns. Then, in turning, she had twisted her ankle, and fallen as the first scuffles broke.
She couldn’t remember the trampling. It was now just a hazy blur of screams, anger and desperate groans (she thought the latter might have been her own). She still heard the brutal intensity of hatred in hundreds of voices when she slept. Diane hated the voices heavy-sleep always brought.
She recalled waking to the sight of the white-plastered ceiling in St Bart’s. For three months she’d been ‘out cold’. They’d thought her ‘touch-and- go,’ her mother had said. She vividly remembered the burning in her broken shoulders, like raw wild-fire, and the dull throbbing in her head when she’d woken from the coma. Then she remembered the birth of utter-horror as she had tried to raise her hands, to cradle her throbbing head, only to realize they weren’t there to lift.
Diane was suddenly brought back to reality as the Eagle made, what the reporter termed, ‘its final approach and prepared to land on the moon’s surface’. She was sure that their eagerly anticipated exit wouldn’t bring angry crowds, or hatred, but had her toes crossed (a logical substitute) just the same. Diane was so absorbed in the incredible live descent that, like the others, she even hadn’t noticed the lone abstainer on the other side of the room.
Paul Allan, Patient 0349, couldn’t sit with the rest of the group. Instead, he gripped the parallel bars in front of him he’d grown to hate. The crash had shattered both his legs below the knee. He hadn’t seen the truck coming. The error had cost Paulie his legs.
Across the other side of the room they sat transfixed, grouped tightly around the television, as the two men finally landed on the lunar surface to spontaneous applause and sighs of disbelieving wonder. With excitement and anxiety tangible in every pair of glittered eyes, they now eagerly awaited those first steps.
Sweat beads swelling, like translucent acne, from his pain-etched face, Paulie gripped onto the wooden parallel bars in front of him, the, alien-looking, artificial legs still unwilling to obey his commands. His thighs burned deeply, agony coursing through what was left of his legs, but he refused to get back into that damned wooden wheelchair. He hated the sight of it.
Paulie turned his mind to the one thing that had got him through this torturous rehabilitation program. The Jets. ‘If the Jets can win the Super Bowl, I can walk again’, Paulie determined, as he gripped and squeezed the wooden bars, ignoring the old blisters which burned once more. The New York Jets’ victory in the Super Bowl, especially after that ridiculously-bold prediction by quarterback Joe Namath that they could win it, had been the best damned day of Paulie’s life. He’d loved the Jets ever since his father had taken him to see ‘The Titans’ at the ‘Polo Grounds’. The first victory in the ‘National Football League’ for a former ‘American Football League’ team and God how he’d loved it. Paulie had been on cloud nine for weeks after. Now he tried to replicate the determination his heroes had shown on that day.
If only he’d shown their calm concentration at that damn junction. In fact, thinking about it, he thought he might have been daydreaming about those Orange Bowl victory scenes at the moment of collision. When the lights went out.
When they had come back on, he’d been missing his legs.
He tried for the thousandth time, as the other patients stared at those incredible space-men on the television, to shift his weight onto one leg and take his first unsupported steps since stepping into that car. Arms spasming uncontrollably as they held his weight, sweat dripping onto the blue mats below, agony personified on his wrinkled face, a heavy groan escaped from his tight grimaced mouth. Paulie pulled his right thigh forward, holding his balance on the left prosthetic, almost passing out through the burning pain. With his vision fuzzy, he stared downwards through bulging tears. Exhausted, Paulie planted his new foot down on the plastic mat.
On the other side of the room, Neil Armstrong finally set his own foot down on the dusty surface of the moon to cries of disbelief and wonder.
‘One small step… a giant leap’ he heard him say.
‘Damn right’, he panted.
Andy Mee is a teacher of English Literature working and living in the Welsh valleys with his wife and young daughter. Occasionally, when finding time away from analyzing other authors’ writing in the classroom, he likes to dabble with language and spin a yarn of his own. Andy has written short stories and poetry for a number of small press publications, including The Horror Zine, Big Pulp and 365 Tomorrows.