Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Challenger


The rocket was boiling in the Florida sun. Not really. That was LOX escaping. Liquid oxygen. He knew that. He read Discover and Omni and Popular Science and Scientific American when Daddy wasn’t looking. Or science stuff on TV, like this thing about the launch tomorrow.
Clouds billowed around the rocket. Pretty, kind of. Crisp and bright in his mind. Not so crisp on the old Zenith. But his mind was crisp and bright enough.
He knew by heart all the planets (Mercury, Venus, etc), the resistor code (bad boys rape our young girls, but Violet gives willingly), the taxonomies of life (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), the ages of the earth (Precambrian to MTV), and the amino acids (all 20 of them, skip it). He learned all that on his own. His school didn’t teach him that stuff. The school’s idea of science was pushing water carts around and measuring the drops. “Operational learning.” Which was another way of saying the more boring it was, the more scientific it was. Daddy’s idea of science was Satan sticking a pitchfork up a child’s ass and twisting it.
You’d think he’d be home-schooled, but Daddy had faith in his faith. Daddy sent him to the secular humanist school to witness. In practical terms, that meant finding a wide-eyed sinner, backing him into a corner (always him -- messing with girls could get you kicked out of public school) and asking ultimate questions. Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior? Have you been born again? Are you aware of the fires of hell? In obedience to his heavenly father and earthly father, he witnessed every day. At the end of each day, Daddy quizzed him to make sure. Speaking of which, the secular humanist school sent home a list of questions the kids might want to quiz the astronauts about. Daddy had helped him with that.

What would you ask Christa McAuliffe about her mission?
How does it feel to burn in hell knowing you have led your children who trusted you to burn with you for spreading the lies of secular humanism?

What do you want to ask about the challenges of space?
Dear astronuts. Remember what happened at the Tower of Babel? The indwelling sin of pride led the Babylonians to build that tower saying “We shall be as the most high.” God punished them with confusion of tongues. How’s it going to feel when he punishes you? Try to imagine it. You’ll be sitting on your rear end, ascending to heaven. That sinful, immodest female astronaut sitting next to you starts running some check list and you suddenly you realize you don’t understand a word she’s saying. You gotta push the right button or the ship’s going to catch on fire but you ain’t got a clue which button to push. How’s that for a challenge?

Stuff like that. Daddy dictated. He wrote it down. He hated it. But --
Speak of the Daddy. Out of nowhere Standing in the doorway, red-faced, fists all balled up.
“What in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ are you looking at, son?”
“Nothing.”
“Nothing?”
Daddy slapped him.
“Nothing. This ain’t nothing. You have sinned before God and sinned before me for lying in this fashion. You think I can’t see what you’re looking at?”
“No.”
“You’re looking at that rocket.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You’re impressed by that rocket?”
“No.”
Newton’s third law. Action, reaction. Not that impressive.
“No?”
Hard blue eyes looking into his eyes. Unblinking. X-ray vision.
Daddy studied him. Made his judgment. 
“No. That’s a truthful answer, son. The truth is in you, for once. You ain’t impressed by that rocket. You’re impressed by the thinking behind that rocket. Something in you wants to storm the gates of heaven. You’re afraid I’m going to see it!”
“No!”
Yes. Damn you, Daddy, Lord Jesus forgive me, I don’t want to damn my Daddy, but that’s exactly what I was thinking. I hate the way you look inside me. Just hate it.
Daddy keeps pushing.
“No?”
“No!”
“Son, every lie you tell is another whip on the back of Jesus.”
“I’m not lying!”
“Oh. You ain’t, huh? You don’t care if I see you getting all googly-eyed over that rocket?”
“No.”
“Then why’d you turn the sound off?”
No answer. No possible answer.
I turned the sound off ‘cause I knew you’d go apeshit if you caught me looking at the launch.
Can’t say that. Can he?
Crying, can't help it. That cut no ice with Daddy.
He felt the meat of Daddy’s hand again.
“Cut that out! You cut that out right now!”
“Yes, sir.”
“What was the sin of Lucifer?”
“Daddy...”
“Father!” Yet another slap. “Don’t you call me ‘Daddy,’ son. Ever! I am not your Daddy! I ain’t Elvis! I ain’t Frank Sinatra! I am ‘Father’ to you.” ‘Father.’ From now until the end of time!”
“Yes, sir. Father.”
After he hit the age of three, Daddy became Father for ever and amen. In his mind Daddy was still Daddy. Most of the time he kept it to himself.
Daddy looking at him. Shaking. Boiling anger, steaming out of him like the liquid oxygen condensing outside the rocket. Thinking of something. Something building in there. He was very fine-tuned to Daddy's moods.
“What was the sin of Lucifer?”
“Pride.”
Daddy slapped him again.
“Not pride!”
“It was pride!”
Slap.
“Sure, son. Might as well say, ‘Satan was bad.’ That’s an answer for rubes, son. That’s a stupid answer. You ain’t stupid! Don’t give me no simple stupid answer to get me off your back!”
“No sir.”
“We studied this, did we not?”
“We did.”
“Yes we did. So, what was the sin of Lucifer? The Five I wills?”
“I will ascend into Heaven. I will exalt my throne above the stars of God. I will rule angels. I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation in the sides of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds. I will be like the Most High.”
“That’s good, son.”
Daddy pointed to the rocket on the Zenith. CNN. He wished they show something else. But they keep coming back to that rocket.
“Something strike you a little familiar about that?”
“Ascending into heaven.”
“That’s right, son. Ascending into heaven.”
“You think God’s going to put up with that?”
“No. Sir.”
Why would God care? Seriously. That thing about the Titanic. It always bugged him. Somebody at the White Star Lines boasted, God himself couldn’t sink her. The Titanic hit an iceberg. Sank. Like God sank it? God is like Bluto in the Popeye comics? “Can’t sink her, eh? We’ll see about that!” Then God rolls up His sleeves and slams the Titanic into an iceberg to prove He's the roughest, toughest fellow in the universe? Don't mess with me, see? There’s more where that came from! No. God isn’t Bluto. He can’t be. God is Popeye. “I yam what I yam.” God is a good guy. He has to be.
Dad is shaking him
“Where you going?”
“No-nowhere.”
“Yeah you are. You’re going in your mind again. You’re crying.”
“No.”
Yeah. Don’t lie, son! I can see it. God’s going to punish that Lucifer rocket and it makes you sad.”
“No.
“Stop lying.
I’m not.
I am. 
“Who are you to put your will against the will of God?”
“Nobody! God’s will be done. Amen!
“Amen. Sure. Amen. Stop crying, son. Start hating.”
“Hating?”
“Hating! God wants you to hate. Hate that rocket! Despise that rocket. Goddamn that rocket! You say it!
“What?
 Goddamn that rocket! I want you to say it.”
“No!”
“Don’t defy me. Goddamn that rocket. Say it.”
When Daddy gave an order you obeyed that order.
“God...Goddamn that rocket.”
“Say it like you mean it!”
“Goddamn that rocket!” 
“That's better.”  
Snap! Daddy snapped his fingers. Pointed to the scratched-up linoleum floor.
“Down on your knees son. We need to seek the Lord in prayer.”
They fell to their knees and clasped hands.
Daddy went into the spirit, spoke in tongues a little bit. Then the Word came out.
“Lord Jesus we praise You and ask for your mighty hand of judgment on that rocket that defies your heavens. Cast it down in a ball of fire for the world to see. Bring low the pride of man that You may be exalted.”
Daddy stopped. Waited.
He was a quick study. Repeated exactly what Daddy said.
“Lord Jesus we praise You and ask for your mighty hand of judgment on that rocket that defies your heavens. Cast it down in a ball of fire for the world to see. Bring low the pride of man that You may be exalted.”
“Goddamn that rocket!”
“Goddamn that rocket!
“Lord Jesus, Goddamn that rocket!”
“Lord Jesus Goddamn that rocket!”
“Amen!” said Daddy.
“Amen,” he said. “Amen.”
Daddy looked at him. Wet approval in his ex-drunk eyes.
“You go to school tomorrow, son. They’ll trot you out to look at it with all the other kids. You’ll look up at that thing going up on the other side of the state. They’ll all be happy and clapping. Then the Holy Spirit will guide you. At exactly the right moment, you will speak a prophecy of doom and destruction. You will say, ‘The Lord has said “You who put your faith in fire, by fire by faith shall be repaid.’ You will say that!”
“Yes, sir. I will.”
“Yeah, you will. No hesitation at all, huh? ‘Yes sir. I will.’ You just said it without even thinking. Kind of quick on the draw, ain’t you son?”
Those hard blue eyes looking into him.
“‘Yes, sir. I will.’ That come a little too easy to you, son. ‘Yes sir. I will.’ Automatic, like a button a jukebox. That ain’t the commitment of a pure heart. It’s what I want to hear!”
Daddy raised his hand. He flinched.
“Son, son, son .. don’t be afraid of me. I don’t want you to fear me. Be afraid of God!”
Tears gushing out. Damn it. Goddamn it.
Daddy talking all gentle now, for maybe a second or two. Then kicking back to angry.
“Don’t just tell me what I want to hear, son. Do it! Obey with your whole heart, without mental reservation. And you will obey. I’m telling you right now. You will say what is given to you. You will speak the word of prophecy!”
“Yes, sir.”
“‘Yes, sir’...?”
“Yes, sir.”
"‘Yes, sir’ ain’t good enough. No. Son, you will swear to me by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that you will speak this word of prophecy. You will swear by your eternal soul! Swear!
I swear by my eternal soul that I will speak this word of prophecy.”
Blood, too.
And the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
"I so swear!
I so swear!
“May my soul be cast into everlasting hellfire if I shirk this task.”
 ”May my soul be cast into everlasting hellfire if I shirk this task.”
“Amen.”
“Amen.”
That was it.
They spent the next two hours collating hand-outs for Daddy’s storefront Church of Signs and Wonders. After that, Daddy made Jiffy-Pop popcorn and they watched some Mister Mustache tapes on the VCR.
He prayed, but didn’t get anywhere. Like the line was dead. He’d failed in some act of courage or honesty. Should’ve told Daddy off and took a beating. Should’ve realized God hates uppity humans. Should’ve taken a stand one way or another. Because you are neither hot nor cold I spit you out of my mouth. God hates fence-sitters, that was one article of faith he and Daddy agreed on. Anyway you cut it, God wasn’t picking up the phone. 
He didn’t think he’d ever fall asleep. But he did.

The sun rose up. He went to school. It was a crisp, bright morning.
The hours crawled by.

At 11:15 am., the loudspeaker crackled, gave the order. Fulfilling Daddy's prophecy, kids and teachers all shuffled out in the parking lot to watch the Challenger shoot up into the sky. 140 miles away as the crow flies, but they’d get a good look at the vapor trail. Teachers trying to look like teachers, not big kids. The kids all yapped and shuffled, Joe messing with that Rubix Cube, Wendy shading her eyes and squinting. I should brought sunglasses. Well how come you didn’t, airhead? Then Jill started clapping. I see it! I see it! Yeah, he saw it, too. A thin little white line going up. All around him, the other kids get to pointing, shouting, clapping, hooting. He knew it was going to explode. He was crying like a girl. God was Popeye, not Bluto. God was a good guy. But he knew the Challenger was going to explode. Tears flowed out of his face.
“You who put your faith in fire, by fire by faith shall be repaid.”
He didn’t say it. He was going to hell. But he didn’t say it.
Bright and clean, the contrail ascended to the heavens in the perfect blue sky.


Indulgent author's note: This is a damn sad story. It popped into my head one night. It occurred to me, what if some obsessive kid, for whatever reason, hated the fuss about the Challenger launch? The kid starts chanting “Goddamn that rocket, goddamn that rocket.” The rocket explodes; he thinks it’s his fault. OK, so why does he hate the rocket? Religion, sinful man ascending to heaven, poking a finger in God’s eye. Then my notion of the kid changed. The hate’s not really his idea. Yeah, that’d be better. The story flowed from there. Be advised: I’m not slamming religion of Christianity, just a psychotic distortion of same. You may say the abusive “Daddy” is a caricature. I’ll say he’s a reality – and I know from personal experience. There really are people like that and worse. I’ve met ‘em. Hell, I’ve worked for ‘em. Another sad story. But I’m not ready to tell it just yet.








1 comment:

Kim Northrup said...

Very nice Marty. Very Nice.