by Melvin Corey Young
Here I am again in the damn shrink’s office. Laying on his couch like some stereotypical loser from a bad novel. He wants me to work on “pushing through the small things, to to get to the major source of things” and work on issues about my upcoming launch date. I don’t speak. I lay there and let him doodle in his notebook. I haven’t said much to him today. My hour is almost up. I am sure he has been doodling little hangmen, probably with my face.
“You know one thing I am tired of doc?” I say.
“What’s that Tom?”
“I am so tired of all the assholes that walk up to me and sing lines from that damn song to me.”
“Yeah, you know. “Space Oddity” by David Bowie? People just come up to me, people that I don’t even know and they just start singing lines from that damn song to me. It’s starting to piss me off. It has my name in it so I guess they think it’s funny.”
“What do you say to them?”
“Nothing. I just look at them like I am about ready to put a fork through their throat. Most of them just walk off.”
“It sounds like it’s not easy being recognizable. Maybe they do it because they think it will make them seem interesting to you or maybe make you talk to them for a bit.”
“I don’t know. It’s just enough to make me go ballistic.”
“That’s the price of fame I guess.”He replied. “sorry Tom, we are out of time. I walk out of his office.
I guess it’s hard for people to understand what it’s like waiting for a launch date. That's the day I go up, streaking into the sky as I sit in a capsule atop a rocket that is one big ball of flaming death just waiting to happen. First, I fly to Kazakhstan on a cold, icy, freezing morning, I sit for eight minutes on a tower of flame being lifted up to the International Space Station, the big set of tin cans in the sky. Sometimes I feel as though I could eat my own liver from the amount of anxiety I have. I could just reach in and pull it out. Sometimes it’s so bad that I doubt I can go through with it. I have so much time and energy invested in this mission that there’s no way that I can’t go. The thought of being in my flight suit sitting there with nothing to do for the time that it takes to launch and travel there makes me queasy. Six hours in a can orbiting the earth a few times then finally docking with the ISS is unnerving.
I’ve always wanted to go to space, ever since I was a small boy watching the Apollo moon landing on TV. I managed to make it through college and then flight school with the US Air Force. I love to fly.
I lean back on my chair and listen to some 7 seconds turned up loud, feeling glad that it’s not Major Tom. Damn that song.
The next morning I am on the way to the shrink’s office, more therapy. I leave mission control and stop at the guard station to check out. I show Greg my badge and he smiles. He sings, “Ground control to Major Tom, commencing countdown” then he starts counting down as the gate arm lifts up. I fight the desire to flip him off as I drive through. Greg is a good guy I can’t be mean to him. Damn that song. I can’t do this. I can’t go up. I have to tell my commander today. I can’t. I have to go. I would be too embarrassed not to.
I walk into the therapist’s office and sit in a chair that looks like it has seen a few decades of use, not really beat up, just antique looking. Really bad music plays over the speaker above me. I gag recognizing the muzak version of that damn song. “Space Oddity” blares out at me, sounding as though some soulless machine spits it into a lifeless disaster of sound, void of any life. I almost walk out when the doctor comes to get me.
“How are you Tom?” he asks.
I say as calmly as I can.
“I’m fine. Nice waiting room music. Don’t worry, I left my fork at home.” He looks at me, his face red with embarrassment.
“Sorry Tom. That was a coincidence. the music is from a service. I don’t control what they play.”
“I saw a movie last week. Silver Linings Playbook. in it a guy with a slight anger problem waits for his therapist and a certain song that makes him go batty plays. It turns out the therapist did it just to see what the guy would do. Are you testing me or something?”
“Nah, I’m not that big of an ass, Tom. It’s really just coincidence.”
“I would drop them.” I reply, smiling as I walk towards his office.
“I’ll consider it.”
We walk into his office. I can’t get comfortable laying on his couch so I just stand at the window looking out at the warm summer’s day.
“Why do you use a couch, doc? Isn’t that just used in bad movies?”, I chuckle.
“Feeling optimistic Tom?”
“No more than usual.”
Outside the trees blow in the wind. Big white cottonball clouds drift slowly by making me wish I was up flying through them. I miss flying. While in training I don’t get alot of time to fly. Mostly we run launch and emergency drills. In my mind I can smell the cockpit of my F-16 and feel the seat as it conforms to my body. It’s as if it was made just for me.
The doctor watches me, thinking what to say.
“How is flying your plane so different that going up on the rocket?
“My plane feels like an extension of me. not like some tin can atop a rocket motor. In my jet I am in total control. It does what I want. In the capsule, I will just sit there and wait until we dock. I am not piloting this time.”
“How bad is the anxiety today.”
“Not bad, sometimes I see little black spots off center of my vision.
“Tom, I’m starting to think that you may be a danger to yourself or others in the capsule. I may have to talk to your commander.”
“You can’t do that doc. I have to go no matter how I feel, I have to.”
“You have some serious issues that you need to work on. You need to be willing to talk to me. If not, you may have to be grounded.” I feel my heart start to pound like a Slayer bass drum.
“I can’t drop out of the program. I have to go. I won’t fail.” My heart pounds.
“Could I have a little time before you call Commander McKaye?”
“Sure, Tom.” He says.
I look back out the window. A bird flies against the wind staying in place as if hovering above the ground. His wings beat hard. He moves up and down in the current. I clench my fist to relieve the anxiety I feel a bit and lower my head.
“Doc, you see that little black bird there, flying his ass off but going nowhere? That’s me in the seat of the capsule. An outside force is controlling me. I can’t escape it just like that little bird can’t escape the wind.
“It sounds like you have a control issue Tom. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Sometimes we really just don’t get to be in control and we have to learn to be ok with it.”
“I don’t know, doc. I just have to go. I would not be able to live with myself if I dropped out. Quitting just isn’t who I am. I’m an astronaut.”
“Ok, Tom. Keep coming to your sessions. I will give you awhile before I talk to your commander. Work on things. It will be fine.” He says softly. I continue watching the little bird fly.
“Oh Tom, another thing. When you go up there remember the movie. Sometimes it’s not a matter of control, it’s just a matter of knowing when to move your head as someone jumps up into your arms incorrectly.”
“Oh my god, doc. You did see that movie.” I can’t control my laughter as his face flushes.
“You really did leave your forks at home. Right, Tom?”
“Yeah doc. No forks I promise.” I sit on his couch and try to relax as I think of where to start first. It takes me a long time to be able to speak. The things that I want to say just do not want to come out. I start speaking a couple times but have to stop.
“What’s the most absurd thing that you have ever done doc?” I ask quietly.
“Well one time I went to a heavy metal show and actually went into the pit.”
This was one of the most shocking things I have ever heard.
“Why would you do that Doc?” I mumbled.
“Sometimes you have to step way out of your comfort zone, Tom. It’s really a good way to grow as a person. Experience is a great teacher.”
I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like for this straight laced looking doctor to go to a heavy metal show and bounce around the pit.
“Tom, tell me. What is the worst thing that would happen to you if you go into space?”
“Well, my capsule could go up in flames and fall to the land, killing me and everyone else on the mission.”
“Can’t your F-16 crash? Have there really been no crashes involving one?”
“No, there is always that chance. Things happen. Some have died. I myself had a close call once. I over extended my range and was so low on fuel, I thought I would have to ditch, but I made it to a field and landed.”
“You can accept that you may die flying but you can’t accept that you may die going to space?”
“Well, yes. I guess it really is just a matter of control.” I said.
“You have to try and just let things go. You are spending too much time worrying about what could happen and not letting yourself enjoy what is happening.”
“How do I do that doc?”
“If I could tell you that in one session. I could write a book and sell a million of them. This is going to take time, Tom.”
I sat not talking. I knew that I had a major task ahead of me. I knew that if I did not conquer my fear it would spread to other areas of my life.
I tried alot of mediation and relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. I took an anti anxiety medication too. I eventually learned to maintain a more even level of thought.
I felt like a new person inside and out. I ate well, stopped drinking alcohol, and made sure to practice rational thought exercises.
On a cold December morning my flight landed in Kazakhstan. I spent a week preparing for launch. I stepped onto the elevator platform that goes to the capsule atop the Soyuz rocket. I waited as the other two members of my team climbed in and sat down. It was my turn. I sat in my seat and fastened my seat belt. I looked up and managed to see a little black bird flying past my window. I knew things would be ok. I heard the countdown reach t minus 1 minute. My seat rumbled with the power of the engine lifting me into orbit. Then, through my headphones, I heard one of the Russians on my team sing Major Tom to me in decent English. Bastard. Funny, I didn’t even think about forks or stabbed throats. All I thought about was how nice orbit would be. That and little black birds flying with the wind.