When I was a kid, I thought everybody's mother made bombs. I thought everybody's mother left in the morning before the rest of the house was awake, then came home at night with a government badge clipped to their lapel with "Top Security Clearance" printed above their picture. I thought everybody's mother walked through the door when the day was done, collapsed on an E-Z Boy and smoked Salem Menthols with her wig askew while her kids melted down an entire stick of butter to pour over the popcorn they made themselves for dinner. I was 9 when I realized my mother was literally the only one.
My mother was always careful to clarify that she didn't make nuclear bombs, rather she designed conventional defense bombs, trying to drill home the notion that if people were killed with one of her bombs it was because they deserved it. She never said that, but I got the idea it was important to her that people not view her as a mad missile scientist, but rather a passive one, a "just a Joe with a job to do" kinda missile scientist.
She was happiest when she was working on rockets, probably because rockets usually don't kill people unless by accident. When we moved to Melbourne Beach, Fla., when I was 9, it was so she could work on the last Apollo moon launch. My father was employed then, selling trailers, and our other family car was a massive motor home called "The Amigo." On the night of the last launch, we drove it to the beach and parked there, waiting with the rest of the citizens in what appeared to be a town-wide tailgate party.
The rocket was supposed to take off in the late afternoon, but didn't until nearly midnight. My sisters and I were sleeping in the motor home when my father finally rousted us to view the launch. Until then my parents had been sitting in lawn chairs on the shore the whole time, drinking cans of Budweiser with our neighbors. "This is a historic occasion, aren't you excited?" a lady asked me, her hooch breath just about cremating my corneas.
Drunk parents were no novelty to me, and so it wasn't enough to keep me awake. My father did that. "Goddammit!" he hollered. "This is an important goddamn moment and I'll be goddamned if you worthless goddamn ungrateful brats sleep through it!"
Sullen, I stared at the dark horizon. The crowd quieted, and soon a flame flickered far off in the darkness, and from that another flame broke free and rose into the sky like a falling star in reverse, then it disappeared behind clouds. The spectacle lasted perhaps 30 seconds and then it was over, signifying the end of my mother's foray into designing instruments of discovery rather than destruction. That night, the crowd around me was still gasping with wonder when I asked to go back to sleep.
My father, angered by his children's lack of awe, ordered everyone back into the cavernous motor home, threw the lawn chairs in after us and popped another Budweiser before getting behind the wheel. On the way home, I dozed in the back as The Amigo lurched unsteadily along at high speed. I remember thinking we would be fine if we crashed, because this was a very big motor home, much bigger than the other vehicles on the road. Yes, we were fine. It was everyone else who was in danger.
I suppose it was an expected mindset for a child whose mother made bombs, but I'm almost ashamed to admit how long that reasoning lasted in my life. For example, throughout the ensuing decades I'd hear about all these catastrophes slated for the future -- like how the Earth is due to be bisected by a giant comet made of coagulated aerosol in the year 2050 or something -- and I remember feeling relieved it would happen outside my lifetime. But for reasons I can't believe I'm admitting to you right now, I changed. In short, I became a mother, and now I care about people. I can't help it. Before, I could read about human suffering and simply be appalled. Now it's different. My friend Lary has called and caught me weeping a couple of times, which I'm sure must bum him out because he always thought he could count on me to be as big an emotional acid vat as he is about the state of the world.
"Why are you so upset? You're not his mother," Lary would say to me in regards to some person in the paper that day, some innocent victim of awfulness. I don't answer him, because what do I say? People matter to me now is all, and it's painful, like blood returning to an atrophied limb on the wrong end of a tourniquet. God, it sucks, I tell you, to know you are not that person's mother but to still feel like you are his mother, like you are everybody's mother.
Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at www.atlanta.creativeloafing.com.
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