Margaret Lazarus Dean | Leaving Orbit | Graywolf Press | May 2015 | 21 minutes (5,246 words)
The following is an excerpt from Leaving Orbit by Margaret Dean Lazarus, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, appearing courtesy of Graywolf Press.
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The astronauts walked with the easy saunter of athletes. . . . Once they sat down, however, the mood shifted. Now they were there to answer questions about a phenomenon which even ten years ago would have been considered material unfit for serious discussion. Grown men, perfectly normal-looking, were now going to talk about their trip to the moon. It made everyone uncomfortable.
—Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon
Southern Festival of Books: Nashville, Tennessee, October 10, 2009
Maybe you’ve seen it. Many people have—at least 800,000 have clicked on various YouTube iterations of the same moment. It looks like nothing at first. The video is fuzzy, amateur, handheld. We hear the muffled verité sound of wind against the microphone, of the excited breath of the camera operator. People are standing around, their postures reflecting boredom, their faces and movements obscured by the shaky camera work and low resolution.
On YouTube, of course, this poor video quality, combined with a high hit count, contains an inverse promise: something is about to happen.
We can make out a white-haired man in a blue blazer, partially obscured by a sign. He seems to be talking to another man, in a black jacket, whose back is to the camera. Out of any context, the white-haired man would be unrecognizable because of the bad video quality, but if you know to look for him—and you do, because of the title on the YouTube page—the man is recognizable as astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of Apollo 11, one of the first two men to walk on the moon.
The muffled audio obscures the voice of the black-jacketed man, who is speaking now. Passion or nervousness makes his voice waver.
“You’re the one who said you walked on the moon when you didn’t,” the man says. He is holding an object out to Buzz. A subsequent Google search reveals that it’s a Bible—he is trying to make Buzz swear upon it.
Overlapping him, Buzz Aldrin’s voice says, clearly and unwaveringly,
“Get away from me.”
“—calling the kettle black. You’re a coward and a liar and a thief—”
At that moment Buzz’s arm comes up and cracks the black-jacketed
man in the jaw. Even with the poor video, we can see that it’s an impressive punch, well-aimed and powerful. We can’t see the punched man’s face, but we see his head recoil backward. The camera recoils too, as if in sympathy. Something has changed in the scene, you can sense it. One public figure’s image has been complicated, another person now has a story to tell, a video to put on YouTube. Read more…