augury doggerel

Saturday, April 20, 2002

Ink, Glue, Air, Grass

I remember the smell of Russian propaganda in the mail. I had written a letter to the Soviet embassy on lined three-hole-punched school paper, left it in our roadside mailbox, and put up the red flag for the mailman. Eventually, something came. The envelope was tattered � there has always been a �Homeland Security� force or two looking into things � but inside was that first whiff of strange ink. The package and postage might have cost a day�s Soviet wages, but someone thought it was worth the price to show a kid in America the mighty Russian spaceships and the medal-wearing Heroes of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics who flew them.

I was a boy, and this was rocketry. I had glued and painted plastic models of every American spacecraft � Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo � I could imagine myself into, and I stayed home from school to watch launches on television. But more than rocketry, this was Russia. Russia was farther away than space, and stranger. When I could find a Russian rocket � Vostok, Soyuz � I built it slowly, carefully, and puzzled out a few Russian letters and words from the decals. BOCTOK. Vostok. East. Soyuz. [I can't do the Cyrillic here] Union. And CCCP, USSR. I read every word of everything Russia mailed me about their rockets and heroes.

When I was 10, our local newspaper, in big red headlines, a rarity then, announced the end of the Soyuz 11 mission. I read the story in our back yard on a warm, sunny day. The cosmonauts had spent the last three weeks in the Soviet space station, everything had gone well, and they were coming home. They were spacemen without spacesuits, quietly sitting in their work clothes, riding a meteor, and looking forward to standing on their own summer grass. When the spacecraft landed, surprised doctors pulled the three still men out on to the grass in Kazakhstan and tried to resuscitate them, but they were gone. The air had hissed out in the static of re-entry, when communication with earth is impossible, and they had quietly suffocated.

I had seen their pictures and built their rocket piece by piece and smelled the ink and glue and paint alone in my room. I thought I could imagine how they died. But I was a kid, it was summer, and the grass was thick and green.


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