Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Call of Telstar (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

We had stars in our eyes in those days. Mercury had flown; we knew man 
could reach space. The Telstars could be seen on clear nights; like rocket boys for Sputnik in the 50s, we 
watched for them and dreamed of space.

In middle school, I had just encountered real astronomy, and I had been introduced to science fiction by the Tom Corbett novels by "Carey Rockwell" in the town library. Our library had all eight books, but I had finished them, and was wandering along the same wall of bookshelves. I turned the corner and...

Sighted Telstar! A series of paper-bound manuals detailing the launch procedures and equipment for the Mercury capsules lined a lower shelf in a protected nook. To this day, I have no idea how these beauties wound up in my small-town library. I was thrilled beyond belief. 

They were marked as reference books. Under an ancient India-ink hand-printed label, "Bell Labs Library," they were stamped "Not To Be Removed From Library." No problem: I sat right down on the floor in easy reach of the pale blue line, and began reading.

I can still remember my struggles. I was accustomed to reading easily, but I had not been challenged before. 

This was my first encounter with engineering bureaucrat-ese. NASA had already developed a corporate style and language, and I had no translating dictionary. No problem: I was not going to give up, even at such a wall. For weeks I haunted the library. I went straight there from school. On at least one occasion, my mother called the library to be reassured that, yes, I was there. 

She feared I had fallen in with a "bad crowd" from the high school. No, I had fallen in with a worse crowd from NASA. I had been bitten by the engineering bug; although the infection smoldered in me, it would burst into full fever pitch late in my high school years. 

All the rest of my life would have been so different if those innocuous blue paper-bound manuals had not been donated to the rural library. The prompt for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week immediately brought that thrill of discovery to mind:

March 2, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a library. You can honor the libraries in your own experience, dream about libraries of the future or explore a community without one. Bonus points for discovering something you didn’t know your library offered.

In my long-ago library, I checked a shelf I had never noticed before, and found the first key to my life. My flash fiction* answers the question I asked then, and now: How did they come to be here? 


The Call of Telstar

James lay cooling in the bedroom as his children argued in the kitchen.

"You can have the tools from his workroom, Leo, I don't want them!" Laurel's voice was thick from weeping. "I only want the china."

After the funeral, she packed fragile dishes between layers of thin technical paper pulled from the shelves in the study, sandwiching plates between Mercury manuals, wrapping cups in drawings of world-breaking electronics, swaddling soup-bowls in maps of coastal dunes and Western Australian desert.

Once unpacked, Laurel donated her impromptu padding to the small local library as a last legacy from her father.


*Yes, it's fiction:

  • James Early was a pioneer in transistor performance, whose work at Bell Labs made possible the development of the Telstar satellites' communications packages. 
  • He was not directly involved with the planning of Cape Canaveral nor with NASA's tracking station in Carnarvon, Western Australia. 
  • Early famously burned his collection of neckties when he retired, saying he was "done with the instrument of torture." 
  • He had eight children, none named Leo or Laurel. 
  • He died in 2004, long after my library treasure was donated.