In about an hour the countdown clock at G.T. Labs will go to a string of zeroes (“all balls,” in Apollo lingo) and you’ll be able to get a copy of T-Minus. I’m as excited as can be about this, and to celebrate I’ll share with you a short story.
We’re not an overtly (or overly) sentimental couple, so one of the ways Kat and I spent our tenth anniversary was to put our car up for sale on craigslist. This meant we got a lot of calls, but none from people wishing us well or congratulating us that Friday afternoon.
(It sold to a person who contacted us within 1/2 hour of said posting, and he drove it away 18 hours later. Who knew 1994 Saturns were in such demand? The downside was we were without a car in SE Michigan — heretics! — for a couple weeks while our hybrid Civic gestated somewhere in Texas.)
I start the story this way because it’s unusual for her to actually pick up the phone, or even look at it when it rings, but given the car thing that’s what she was doing. I was working on a draft of the T-Minus script when the phone rang, again. She looked at caller ID, and yelled
Actually, it was more like “ALDRIN, BUZZ!!!!!!!”
So, palms sweating, I picked up, and his assistant Kathryn was on the line: “Buzz is in the office today — is now a good time?” She was picking up right where we’d left off a few months back, when I had contacted her about my asking him a question or two about Apollo technology. I had forgotten about it since.
OK, I lie. I hadn’t forgotten at all, but had assumed that this was so low a priority that I’d never hear from them. So wrong! And so, in what was probably a very high-pitched voice, I replied “Yes. No. Yes… Um, can I have a few minutes and call you back?”
“Sure, I understand. You need to set up your recording equipment. Give us a call when you’re ready. How much of Buzz’s time do you need?”
“5-10 minutes would be…wow. Great.”
“Well, Buzz is on a roll today, so you may need to set aside a little more than that.”
“Hey, I’ll listen for as long as he wants to talk.”
So I did set up my recording equipment, stopped hyperventilating, and then called back. They were on speaker-phone when Kathryn picked up, and they were arguing. (“No, you have to put in the trash first.” “I don’t think…” “Put it in the trash, and then you click.” etc.) She asked if I could hang on for a moment, and I said sure. This interlude helped more than breathing into a paper bag and wiping my palms on a succession of towels all over the house had done — he’s a person dealing with a recalcitrant computer. That’s good…I’m not sure I know how to talk to someone who’s walked on the moon, but I know how to talk to someone who’s having computer trouble.
And then he’s on the phone and I stammered and said thanks and asked if I could record and he said no.
“First let me ask you some things.”
We talked about what I was doing and whether I’d had a history of success with other books (Success? Well…) He knew what graphic novels are, and wanted to know how I might use what we talked about. He asked if I’d spoken with anyone else and I mentioned that I’d exchanged email with Neil Armstrong. “Substantive?” Yes, I’d had a specific technical/historical question for him, and he answered it. “Well, OK then.” In other words, I was lucky with timing, because getting an answer from his colleague helped, I think — it also helped that I wasn’t writing something akin to a celebrity cookbook. As he put it, “You know, they want to know your favorite food and then all of a sudden your name is on the cover…”
All of the above is paraphrasing, by the way, since I wasn’t in fact recording, but then he gave me permission to start and off we went on orbital mechanics. I’ve typed up the transcript, and it’s surprisingly good — except for the part where I’m talking, of course. He’s focused and intense, and really interesting to listen to. It was great and I learned a lot. And I laughed a couple of times, the last time an inward silent one, since as we closed with the usual pleasantries and thanks-for-your-time bits, it was clear that he’d forgotten my name. He made the save (or his assistant did) though, and said “You’re very welcome…ahhh…Jim.”
Very little from the conversation made it directly into the story, but if you read it and wonder why there’s a focus on rendezvous, and why computing technology comes up repeatedly, it’s because of this conversation and that brief email exchange with Neil Armstrong. They were generous and helpful and I’m grateful to have had the chance to talk, however briefly, with two legends. They’re just the type of people you’d hope they were, and that makes me smile.
I hope you like the book.