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state: second draft
last update: 2000 January 20

Eddie Hive: First Man in Space

4. The First Man to Put His Foot on the Big White Ball

By Kevin Kelleher



Colonel Opten was a big man, much bigger than Eddie. Eddie estimated that the colonel had four inches and fifty pounds on him. His graying hair and moustache put him in his fifties, but he carried the years well. He looked like a man who worked out, a man whose fists cut deep into the heavy bag, a man made from 250 pounds of muscle and bone. A massive, formidable man, but one that moved lightly, with attention. Every ounce of effort was directed and controlled. Eddie noticed in particular the way the colonel was holding a manila folder as he entered the room, as if the thing were fragile, as if through inattention he might break it.

Eddie had seen that kind of exaggerated caution before. A memory carried him back to a night in Korea: he could see it. An hour after sunset: the darkness had something fresh to it, in spite of the dull, humid, enervating heat. Eddie watched as an airplane mechanic set a heavy generator gently gently on a high shelf. Eddie was struck by the gentleness, by the intentionality: the generator could have been a fragile porcelain or a precariously thin crystal.

At the same time, the gentleness was frightening, because Eddie knew in his gut what it meant.

Everyone called this mechanic Bull, not just for his size and weight, but also for the proverbial bull in a china shop: Bull was always breaking things without meaning to. That fifty-pound generator, for instance, was nothing to him. Bull could have tossed it from hand to hand like a softball. Once he took the hood off someone's car by opening it a little too far. He was forever pulling doorknobs out of doors, and he never replaced a burnt-out lightbulb because he'd break the bulb picking it up.

Then one night Bull broke a good friend's arm with a playful squeeze. Bull was mortified. The friend knew Bull didn't mean it; in fact he appreciated the little vacation the arm gave him, but Bull took the accident very much to heart, and began to pay close attention to every move he made. He stopped breaking things almost right away, but the transformation was frightening. Bull's constant state of attention and the intentionality of his movements put everyone around him on edge. It threw his strength into high relief: his dangerous energy was even more obvious.

The recollection finished, Eddie looked at the colonel, who with great care set the folder on his desk. A gust of air-conditioned cool brushed Eddie's face. He remembered how he'd always avoided Bull; they hardly exchanged ten words.

Hive knew that he'd expected more from NASA once they heard about the tests. He expected shock, surprise, disbelief, and -- after the facts of his flights were established -- he expected people to crawl all over him, ask him questions, take his picture, touch him, shake his hand. Instead, he was sitting in a dingy little office in one of the those uncomfortable green metal chairs that the military loves, looking at the unadorned, vomit-green walls. The only thing different from Korea was the view out the window, and even that was not so different. He expected some kind of reception, some kind of recognition. Instead, he was alone with a big bruiser of a colonel who as yet had not opened his mouth, but only looked at Hive, as if he were trying to decide whether Eddie belonged in a military prison or a civilian prison. "You Hive?" he asked at last.

"Edwin Hive," Eddie replied.

"Rank?"

"I'm not in the service."

"But you were in the military at some point?"

"I flew for the Navy in Korea."

"Fighters?"

"Yes," Eddie replied, choking off the "sir," but Opten heard it anyway. The colonel's gaze fell on Eddie like a searchlight, like the eye of God looking into his heart. It was hard not to squirm, not to look and feel uncomfortable, but Eddie kept himself in check. He hadn't done anything wrong, so why should he feel guilty? Eddie fought to stay still, to look composed, but his feet fidgeted by themselves. He pressed them to the floor, but in a moment they were dancing nervously. At last the colonel's expression changed, as if he were about to say (as someone once told Eddie in Korea), CALL ME SIR, SOLDIER, IT WILL MAKE LIFE A LOT EASIER, but instead he said, "Hive, how did you come to be a part of those rocket tests?"

All Eddie's breath left in one gust. He looked down at the bare wood floor, then up the wall, searching for an answer. "Well, I guess, basically, somebody just asked me and I said yes. One of the engineers on the project is a friend of mine."

"You did not seek the position?"

"No, I didn't even know it existed until he asked."

Good, the colonel thought. Hive's not dedicated or ambitious; an ambitious man would have said that he'd decided to fly, even if it wasn't his decision. If Hive was not ambitious, if he let things happen to him, it would be easier to correct the situation and cover up the tests. Opten asked another question.

"What, in your understanding, is the purpose of those tests?"

Hive responded immediately, "To convince NASA that the rocket is safe."

Very good, the colonel thought. Hive doesn't know that NASA is behind the tests.

Eddie asked hesitantly, "And this is NASA, isn't it? I mean, you are a NASA official?"

"That's right, Hive. I work for NASA. We know all about your test flights." He sighed. It was time to come to the point. "Hive, was it your understanding that those tests were secret?"

"Yes, of course."

"Then why did you talk to that reporter?"

Eddie gulped. "Reporter?"

"Don't play dumb, Hive. The girl from Seattle, Amelia Spar. I've been told, but I could have guessed, that she's attractive and young. Am I right?"

"Ba--"

"Loose lips, Hive, loose lips. For all you knew, she could have been a Russian spy. Or a spy for the Red Chinese. But you didn't think of that, did you? Did you talk to any other reporters?"

"No, sir."

"That, at least, is good news. The fact remains, however, that you gave your word not to talk about the tests and then you blabbed it all to the first person who came along."

"She was not--"

"Did you know when you gave your word that you wouldn't keep it?"

"Of course not!"

"What is a man worth, Hive, I ask you: what is a man worth if he cannot keep his word? What is a man worth if a pretty girl can walk up to him, smile, and wrap him around her little finger? She could have led you by the nose anywhere she liked. Are you really that simple? Tell me: what was at stake, Hive? Think about it: what did you give away?"

Eddie's face got hot and angry. "What was at stake!? I'll tell you what was at stake. My life was at stake! My life! That was ME on top of that rocket. It was my butt that was on the line! Not yours, not anybody else's! That's what was at stake!"

"That's good, Hive, that's real good. But you knew that from the start, didn't you? Didn't you? Answer me."

Grudgingly Eddie agreed.

"You knew from the start that your life was on the line. It was explicitly part of the agreement. They told you the chances were good that you would die, and you agreed to that condition. Then they asked you to keep your mouth shut, and you agreed to that condition, too. They didn't say to keep quiet if you felt like it; they just said to keep quiet. If you wanted to make some point about your rights, you should have done it back then, but you know what they would have told you: you had to take it or leave it. If you wanted your rights you never should have climbed onto that rocket. If you want your rights you can go outside with all the damn bleeding hearts and wring your hands and cry, but if you want to be a man, if you want to take chances that count, if you want to do something for your country, a lot of the time you have to give up your rights. That's the way it is. It's tough, but that's the way it is. Think about it. What if every soldier, every pilot, every intelligence agent in the world one fine day just woke up and said, 'Hey, it's my life on the line here; the hell with this.' What kind of armed service would we have? What the hell kind of world would it be? We could just kiss it all goodbye. The Russians could just waltz right in and take it all away. Every American fighting man knew before he started that it was going to be hard, but once a real man starts something, it's too late for second thoughts.

"Every man -- if he's a real man -- stands by his decisions. A real man lives up to his word."

"But I'm the one who took the risks!" Eddie hotly retorted. "I'm not a soldier in an army; I'm not part of a crowd; I'm not fighting anybody or anything. I'm one man who sat on top of a bomb. I lived to tell about it, and I told about it. I took the risks, so I've got the rights!"

"Hive," the colonel replied in a controlled, firm voice, "you explicitly gave those rights away at the outset, before the tests began. It was too late to change your mind." The colonel glanced at his watch. Then he opened the manila folder. "How well did you know Domenic Fleiss?"

Eddie was startled by the question. He wasn't ready for the abrupt change. He hadn't said all he wanted to say. However, he didn't have the words ready; he didn't know where to begin, what to go back to, where to pick up the ball. All he could do was answer, "Not very well. I can't say I know him."

"He was in charge of those tests, so you must have had contact."

Eddie recalled the deference the others showed Fleiss, the way they cited him, "Fleiss wants it this way" or "Fleiss said to do it." Now he understood the way Fleiss had spoken to him. He recalled the big fleshy man, the glasses, the dark curly hair, the big smile and bright white teeth, the white lab coat, bending over him in the capsule to shake his hand before the first flight. "I didn't know he was in charge," Eddie replied. "I saw him sometimes across a room, but we only spoke once or twice. He shook my hand a couple times, and he came to see how I was after the post-flight exams, but that was all the contact we had. Why?"

Opten hesitated a moment, then decided to tell. "Fleiss has disappeared. More than that, he's gone without a trace. We hoped you might have some idea of where he's gone."

"Gone? No." Eddie was stupified. "Why would he disappear?"

"Good question," Opten replied, "but we don't have any answer yet. I was hoping that you might be able to help. Do you have the slightest hint or guess? Anything you ever overheard him say -- any place he ever wished to be? Did you ever see him with any unusual visitors? Can you tell me anything at all about the man?"

"I really didn't know him at all."

Opten grunted, and carefully picked a photograph from the open folder, holding it by the edges as if it were the most fragile thing in the world, and he passed the photo to Eddie. "Do you know this man? With or without the hat?"

Full of curiosity, Eddie looked at the picture. "It's pretty blurry," he commented.

"I know that," the colonel replied testily. "But I asked you if you know the man. Have you ever seen him?" It was a color photograph of a man whose good-looking, smooth-shaven face stood in profile. He was laughing, and his teeth were white and clean. There was a resemblance to an actor -- but Eddie couldn't recall which actor -- and his nose seemed long and pointed, though it could have been a trick of the light. He was wearing a broad-brimmed tan hat and a suit of the same color. "The hat looks fam iliar," Eddie said, "but I really can't say that I've seen the man. Who is he?"

"Never mind who he is," Opten replied. "I only want to know if you've seen him. Has he been at the test site? Did you see him there? Have you ever seen him with Fleiss, for instance?"

"I don't think so," Eddie said. "I'm pretty sure I'd remember. Where is he standing? What's that thing in the background?"

"Never mind," Opten said and snatched the photo. He closed the folder over the picture. "Now," he said, folding his hands and smiling ironically, "let's talk about us." He leaned forward. "You probably don't know much about NASA. You probably don't know much about the Soviet space program either--"

"I know that they're ahead of us. Except that they haven't put a man in space yet, and we have." Meaning me, Eddie told himself.

"Hmm," Opten said, looking menacing at Hive. He hated being interrupted. "Look, Hive, the Russians aren't ahead of us; not really. It's just the way the newspapers make it look."

"But they've put animals in space. They've got bigger rockets that launch heavier payloads. They put satellites up before we did--"

"For your information, Hive, we've launched more satellites than the Russians, and ours are far more sophisticated. You have to remember, too, that the Russians have the advantage of secrecy. They only announce their successes; all our failures are on page one all around the world. They've probably had as many missiles misfire as we have: we just don't get to hear about it. That's one of the few disadvantages of our open society."

The colonel thrust his arms before him, and leaned them on the desk. "In any case, they won't have this appearance of being in the lead for long. Technologically, they're behind us. Just because they've done a few circus stunts with their missiles before we got around to it doesn't mean anything. Khrushchev will be laughing out of the other side of his mouth one of these fine days."

Hive licked his lips. "So what you've saying is that they're not really ahead of us -- they've just done it before we did."

Opten's eyes smoldered with a concentrated fire. Eddie started back as the colonel's words flowed out like molten lava. "Listen to me, Hive -- I'm not here to listen to your sass. You think you're some new American hero, but I've got news for you, buster: you're just a smartass, and if you don't watch your step you'll get what's been coming to you for a long time.

"NASA has always been dead set against premature manned launches, just as I was dead set against secret manned launches. As you well know, I didn't get my way."

The hair on the back of Eddie's head stood straight up and stayed that way. The colonel's lava continued to flow.

"Even now, when you almost blew the whole program to the press, there were those among our group who thought you might be useful. But I was not one of them." He put his hands flat on the desk, as if he were going to push it through the floor. "I said then, and I still say now that what you need most is a good kick in the seat of the pants and a nice long stay in the guard house." He paused and smiled, relishing the thought. Then he said, "I'd be the one to give you the kick."

The words burst out of Eddie: "What have I done that was so bad? Just because I had the guts to do what nobody else would do? Why are you treating me like this? Why are you talking to me this way?"

Opten, calmed by the idea of the drop-kick to the guard house, reflected for a moment. He took his anger in hand and soothed his spirit. He absolutely did not want to lose his temper, lose control. He relaxed and took a slow deep breath. "Hive," he said in a paternal tone, "you don't know what's at stake, do you?"

"My hide," Eddie replied.

"Don't get me angry," the colonel warned. He sighed and sat back. "Let me tell you a little about the Mercury program, Hive. We've got a carefully projected, step-by-step series of seven flights: each one a test of some aspect of man in space. We carefully selected seven men: seven men, seven flights, culminating in a one-man, multi-orbit flight. That's the Mercury program in a nutshell. The seven men, our first seven astronauts, are all test pilots, all military men. They've all shown their mettle in combat, in dangerous situations, in experimental aircraft. Yet we didn't choose these men for their physical characteristics alone--"

Eddie cut in, "You also chose them for their PR value."

Opten stopped dead. Eddie went on, "They look good, they're good Public Relations. But I'm good, too -- you can tell the press that I've done it -- you can skip the first two flights, because I've already flown them." Opten didn't say anything. He didn't look angry, he just looked like he was thinking. So Eddie added, "I gave a headstart to Project Mercury."

Opten started again, patiently explaining: "Hive, you have to see it this way: Project Mercury is a program that's already in place. We've gone through so much to bring it to this point: we've created NASA, established our place in the federal budget, worked out the program of tests and the schedule of flights, given research and development contracts--"

"Red tape," Eddie told him. "It's just red tape. You can skip it."

Miraculously, Opten maintained his calm. Again, patiently explaining, he said, "Hive, it is not red tape. It's caution, and it's justified caution. We want to put a man in space, yes, but we also want to bring him home in one piece. We need to know that the missile he's sitting on is safe."

"You know it's safe because I've done it."

"No, we don't know that."

"Yes, you do!"

By now, though it was difficult and getting more difficult, the colonel had a good grip on his anger. He, like Hive's friend Bull, once had a frightening revelation of his own strength and was not going to be caught that way again. Opten's experience was quite different from Bull's, however. Bull had been drinking; Opten was stone sober. Bull had been joking; Opten was flaming with anger. It was a party, a very nice party in one of the pretty suburbs outside Washington. There was a swimming pool in the backyard, people everywhere, music playing, everyone dressed in light summer clothes. The scene frequently replayed before Opten's inner eye: he saw himself by a low brick wall. The pool lay beyond the wall, and the lawn dropped a couple of feet to the poolside. He was talking with someone, holding a highball in his left hand and clenching his right. His heart pounded in his ears. His t eeth were tightly closed. The explosion was on its way.

A woman in a airy blue dress walked up from the pool. She shook her long brown hair in a wave of shifting light whose beauty seemed out of place in the recollection. But it was there, just before whoever it was said whatever he said and BOOM!

A red light lit in the center of Opten's brain. He bared his teeth and narrowed his eyes. Every muscle in his body responded, strong and aware, as the wave of adrenaline flowed from the center of his heart to the tips of his feet hands and hair. His fists tightened. He heard the glass crack, but he didn't feel it cut. The other fist shot out, unthinking, and struck the low brick wall at its top row, where a string of single bricks were firmly mortared in a decorative pattern.

With a powerful CRACK! a single brick flew from the wall through the air and landed in the pool.

He succeeded in frightening the man he was speaking with, but no one was more frightened than Opten himself. Still swathed in the heat and fire of adrenaline, he felt the iced highball cooling his hand and running down his left leg. His right hand was bleeding but it didn't hurt yet. He was out of breath and his heart was pounding desperately. Everyone looked at him in silence.

After his hands were bandaged Opten walked home alone. It took three hours, three very intense hours in which Opten saw the event replay over and over. The worst of it, worse than the loss of control and the cuts on his hands, was the extremely vivid and unmistakeable impression of what would have happened if that blonde-haired child hadn't bent to look in the dirt and if that man in the pool hadn't stopped for air.

The child never knew how close the brick had come, but the child's mother knew. The man in the pool knew, too. He fished the brick from the water and set it on the side of the pool. Then, trembling like a man with palsy, he climbed from the pool and walked past Opten without a word.

And so Opten knew that as much as he disliked Hive, he could not afford to indulge his indignation and his anger. He never wanted to see that red light lit in the center of his head again.

"Hive, listen to me," he said gently. "If we let you do that launch at the end of the month, can you say there's not a good possibility that you'll be blown to bits without ever leaving the launch pad? Have you got any idea of what you'd be sitting on? I mean, what kind of fuel does it use -- do you know? How does it work? Have you any more than a general idea?"

"That kind of thing is not my concern."

"You don't know, then. You don't even know what could make it blow up. Do you? The tiniest leak, invisible even to the trained eye -- that's all it takes, and poof! you're gone."

Eddie struggled to find a reply. "Those problems... they're not... I don't -- What I mean is that the technicians worry about that stuff. They wouldn't let me climb on there if it wasn't safe."

"Hive, it just isn't so. They let you climb up there just because you're naive enough to do it. You're a rocket designer's dream. That engineer that told you about the tests -- is he a good friend of yours?"

"No, not really."

"And if I'm not mistaken, if you were to die on that rocket no one would come around asking why. No family, close friend, no one."

Eddie didn't answer. After a moment the colonel went on. "You've been lucky, Hive, damned lucky. You've been stupid, too: they paid you peanuts to -- like you said -- sit on top of a bomb, and if you're still alive, well, somebody up there must like you. That's all I can say."

Eddie looked at the floor as if he could see his life, his personal worth, his self-esteem, and everything good he ever had or felt swirl down a drain to the sewer. Opten added, "Foolhardy, reckless, I guess I don't need to go on."

Eddie struggled. He could hardly get the words out: "But I've done it! Doesn't that mean anything? I've done it! I'm the first man in space!"

Opten felt a flash of pity for the man, and he waited until it passed. Then he said, "I'm sorry, Hive, but there's more at stake than your being first."

"What?" Eddie asked bitterly. "Your Mercury program? Your precious budget? Your job? Your reputation? I did it! I did it, and you can't take it from me."

"Hive, it isn't just Mercury or NASA that's at stake. It's a problem of national security, national defense. The space program is a very visible symbol of our technological superiority. It's not a weapon, but it's got more clout than any gun or bomb in showing that our way of life is superior to Communism. We've got to stay ahead of the Russians or we'll lose the trust our allies have placed in us. The defense of the free world is in our hands."

"What's one thing got to do with the other?"

"Hive, when the Russians put up Sputnik do you know what Life magazine said? It said, 'Let us not pretend that Sputnik is anything but a defeat for the United States.' A defeat for the United States. Think about it. If that's what our friends say, what are our enemies saying? This is not just a race to be the first to do some technological circus stunt; this is a race for survival. We have to show the free world -- we have to show the whole world that no one has the power, the know-how, the technology that we've got.

"What's at stake here is the freedom and the survival of every human being on this planet. If we let the Russians slip ahead of us here, they'll start slipping ahead in Africa, Indochina, South America, Asia. After that, Europe will fall, and we will be the one light left on earth."

Eddie thought it sounded crazy, but he didn't dare say so. What he said was, "All this will happen if people find out what I've done?"

Opten replied, "The United States government decided to put a satellite in space. The Russians did it first. The United States decided to put animals in space. The Russians did it first. Listen to this: Kennedy said this in one of his campaign speeches." Opten picked up a sheet from his desk and read, "'The first vehicle in outer space was called Sputnik, not Vanguard. The first country to place its national emblem on the moon was the Soviet Union, not the United States. The first canine passengers in space who safely returned were named Strelka and Belka, not Rover or Fido, or even Checkers.'"

"But what does this have to do with me?" Eddie said. "If you tell the world what I've done, it will put the Russians back in second place."

"Yes, but again the problem is that the United States government gets put in second place -- this time by you. Again it will look like the government doesn't have what it takes to beat the Russians."

"I don't get it," Eddie insisted. "I'm an American. Everybody on the program is American. The rocket's American, it was launched in America and it landed in American water. To me it looks like America beat Russia."

Opten thought for a moment before speaking. Then he said, "Okay, Hive, I'll level with you. The problem isn't you, it's Fleiss. The man is a communist." He paused to let the information sink in, to give Hive time to digest all the ramifications. "Fleiss is a communist," he repeated, "That's why he was out there working in the desert instead of at NASA. The man's a genius, but he's red as a radish. He's the one that got the thing to fly. He's the one that made it safe enough for you. And now he's disappeared. So what are we supposed to do? A communist! If he was still around and we announced your flights, the Russians would say, 'See? It took a communist to do it.' Now we don't know where he is. What if he's in Moscow, and we announce your flights? The Russians will say, 'It took a communist to do it and now he's working for us.' Do you see what I'm saying, Hive? Either way we lose, and we lose big. That's the problem."

Eddie struggled for some way out, for something to say, for some kind of solution. What difference did it make? Why should Fleiss' politics ruin Eddie's life? "Can't you deny that Fleiss was involved?" he asked. "Can't you cover up his part?"

"Maybe if we knew where he was, we could," Opten replied, "but with him running loose, there's no telling. He's a wild card."

"But if you find him--"

"If we find him, then we'll see."

"And in the meantime, I'm just out in the cold."

"No, Hive, that's not our intention."

"But I can't talk."

"No."

"Nobody's going to know what I did."

"No. But listen, Hive. When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in '47, just a handful of people knew about it. We kept the story under wraps for almost a year -- it was classified. He couldn't talk and we wouldn't talk, so how do you think he felt?"

"I think I'm going to find out."

Opten scratched his head. "Hive, don't start feeling sorry for yourself. Put a little rock on your tongue to keep from talking, and wait to see what happens. I can't promise you anything, but if and when it's possible to tell the world what you've done, we'll do it."

"And in the meantime?"

"In the meantime, we'll take you onboard at NASA." Opten didn't want to do it, but it wasn't his decision. "We'll put you with the seven astronauts. You'll train with them, and you'll help train them. Unofficially, of course."

"Of course."

"What I'm about to tell you is classified, Hive, but I have to tell you: in '61 or '62 we're going to select a second group of astronauts, a bigger group for the flights that will follow the Mercury series. You can be a part of the second group.

"What I'm offering you, then, is an unofficial position as a backup for the Mercury astronauts that in a year or two will change to an official position as a real astronaut -- your name given to the press and all that: publicized flights and all that goes with it."

Eddie's eyes were still on the floor. He was trying to see another way out, another alternative. He wished he could call Amelia -- he was sure she could find a way to put him in the papers now, to not have to wait. As it was, he only saw two alternatives: he could take NASA's deal or he could be an unemployed astronaut. Alone, what could he do? He probably couldn't get to the proof -- the films, recordings, telemetry printouts and so on -- and without the proof, who would believe him?

"My story's not going to appear in that Seattle paper, is it?" he asked the colonel.

"No," Opten replied. "I took care of that this morning. There's no chance of it." Well, thought Eddie, that settles it. My fate's sealed by now. I have to work for NASA.

Opten, however, had one more card to play: "There's one more thing I have to tell you, Hive. In case you feel put down by being placed in the second group of astronauts instead of the first group. You have to consider where our space program is headed."

"The Moon?" Eddie said.

"Right," Opten replied. "We're headed for the moon before the decade's out. And chances are that the first man to set his foot on that big white ball will be an astronaut from the second group. So if you keep your nose clean, study hard, and train well, you'll have a good shot at being the first man on the moon."

Those last words, "the first man on the moon," echoed in Eddie's head and gave him a funny sensation. The walls of the little office suddenly looked like paper, and the huge colonel some kind of wind-up doll. The unreality of the scene, the absurd color of the walls, the discomfort of his chair, the poor state of the floor, the mechanical insect-like ticking of a typewriter in the next office, the gellid breath of the air conditioner took on a dream-like sharpness. Like in a dream, Eddie saw that it all could break and blow away in a light wind. The only element that preserved its rock-hard reality in this strange vision were the words "first man on the moon." Eddie knew that he, Edwin Hive, would be the first man to set his foot on that big white ball. Whatever happened, whatever Colonel Opten had to say, whether he was ever known as the first man in space or the last man on earth, he knew that it was written: his destiny was fixed: Eddie Hive, first man on the moon.

"So what do you say, Hive?" Opten asked. "Are you with us or against us?"

"I'm with you," Eddie said and unconsciously added, "sir."


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