Monday, February 2, 2009

DBTL 11: Love and Rockets

Lublin, Polish Commonwealth
8 June 1943

Later on, he always regretted not going to Warsaw during the siege. If it had been Spain, he knew, nothing could have kept him away. But the Mola putsch had ended practically before it began, and Poland would have been so damned cold, and in the end the whole damned war had come and gone and him still in Key West trying to land marlin.

And now here he was, six years of his life gone by and nothing to show for it. A writer was only as good as his last work, and his last work had been a hopeless mess called To Have and Have Not. It had begun well enough, but somewhere along the way it had gotten away from him. He should have gone with his gut and burned it, but instead he had let Max Perkins talk him into publishing it. There had been the usual critical gang-up and the book had done poorly.

An attempt at playwriting had gotten bogged down, and then the stay in California had resulted in nothing but a bunch of unproduced movie scripts. Then he had let writing go hang and spent his days fishing on the Pilar. Pauline and the boys had left him and now at age 43 he was washed up, alone, wondering from day to day whether he should just take a gun and end it all.

From out of the blue had come the call from Arnold Gingrich asking him to go and cover the Polish rocket launch for Esquire. He had almost turned Gingrich down from force of habit, but something had made him accept. It was as if he knew that this was his last shot at redemption, the last roll of the dice, all or nothing. He had agreed, and now here he was somewhere out in the back of beyond, waiting for a bunch of German eggheads to try to fire off an oversized bottle rocket with a Polish flag painted on the side. Most likely the thing would just blow up.

It hadn't taken him long to find a dive bar in Lublin that served Cuban rum, and he had been trying to sweet-talk a waitress who spoke nothing but Ukrainian when he saw the young guy in the British uniform. It had been too long since he had met anyone else who spoke English, so he waved the Brit over and stood him a drink.

"Flight Lieutenant Clarke, RAF," the Brit had introduced himself, with that funny way of saying "leftenant" that the Brits had.

"Hemingway," he answered, "Ernest Hemingway. I'm here to cover the launch for Esquire."

"Ah, yes, you're the chap who wrote The Sun Also Rises, wonderful book."

"Thanks. The RAF? Aren't rockets a little out of their league?"

"To be perfectly honest," said Clarke, "I volunteered to be here. I've always been quite keen on the subject of rockets and, er, space travel. Been following Dr. von Braun's career for years. Member of the British Interplanetary Society, in fact."

He couldn't help himself from laughing out loud. "That Buck Rogers stuff?" He knew he'd made a mistake the moment he said it, because the Brit stiffened up.

"Will that be the title of your Esquire piece, then?" Clarke said frostily.

"Hey, I'm sorry," he said. He wasn't used to apologizing -- to anyone, for anything -- but if the Brit really was up on all this rocket stuff, it would save him a lot of legwork. "That's what a lot of people back home would say. But, hell, if the Poles think it's a good idea, then it's gotta be a good idea, right?" That was true enough. In the last 25 years, the Poles had literally come out of nowhere to become a major power. They practically ran eastern Europe, and even Uncle Joe had to mind his P's and Q's where the Poles were concerned.

Besides, the Brit had hit close to home. He had been planning to call the article that -- a satirical piece about a bunch of funny little eggheads shooting off Roman candles. He was starting to realize just how close he had come to churning out a piece of worthless hackwork. It would have put the last nail in the coffin of his writing career.

Clarke unstiffened again. "Oh yes, backing von Braun's research shows a good deal of foresight on the Poles' part. Rather more than the Germans themselves showed before the war."

He spent the rest of the evening getting background from Clarke. A Russian (from a Polish family, as the Poles were always quick to point out) named Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (he made the Brit spell it for him) had first broached the idea in 1903, and an American named Robert Hutchings Goddard had been conducting experiments. As soon as he heard that, he knew that he had a hook for the article. Americans loved hearing about Americans.

The current bunch here in Lublin were Germans who had been inspired by a guy named Hermann Oberth. They had been working in obscurity until one of their number, Werner von Braun, had convinced the Polish government to fund their research in 1939.

Now here it was four years later, and the Poles had invited everyone to see them launch their first rocket. And even though there were no Russians here (or so said Clarke), you could bet your bottom dollar Uncle Joe was watching.

"So," he said at last to Clarke, "do you think it'll work?"

"I'd like it to," the Brit said, "but most likely it'll just blow up."

He left the dive bar stone cold sober, with a promise to meet Clarke the next day for a tour of the place. Then he went back to his hotel and slept the soundest sleep he'd had in six years.

The next day was a whirlwind, with Clarke showing him around and explaining more about the rocket. They had taken a lot of ideas from Goddard (much to his annoyance, him being the secretive type), like mixing liquid rocket fuel with liquid oxygen, and using a gyroscope to keep it flying straight. That afternoon the two men had driven to the launch pad to see the rocket itself.

The sight of the rocket standing up next to its gantry, with steam rising up from the side, was a revelation. He was struck by the sense of raw power that the thing gave off. It was mesmerizing.

There was a film crew scurrying around the base of the rocket, and it took a while for him to notice that one of them was a woman. She looked about his age, kind of old, but there was a grace about the way she moved that told him she was a dancer, or used to be.

When she finally noticed them, it was Clarke's uniform that attracted her attention. With the camera running, Clarke explained in pretty good German about his duel roles as an official observer from the RAF and an unofficial observer from the British Interplanetary Society.

After the interview, Clarke introduced him, and damned if the magic of his name still didn't have its effect. It turned out that the woman was the documentary filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. He had seen her documentary of the siege of Berlin, "City of Shadows". She in turn had read German translations of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. She had to go to interview some Polish government official, but they made a date to meet that evening at his hotel.

Clarke had dropped him off at his hotel, and he had time to change clothes and shave before meeting Leni in the lobby. For a while he was worried she wouldn't show, but when she showed up wearing a dark blue evening dress and a knowing smile, he knew everything would be all right.

She was gone when he woke up, but he knew he'd see her at the launch that morning. Clarke picked him up at the hotel, and they drove together back out to the launch pad. He could tell the Brit was practically quivering with excitement at the prospect of seeing the rocket go off. He felt the same way himself, about the rocket and about Leni.

The reviewing stand was about a mile away from the launch pad, because everyone knew that the rocket would most likely just blow up. There were hundreds of people there, including President Sławek and War Minister Skwarczyński. He could see Leni too, conducting interviews and shooting footage of the crowds and the rocket.

A loudspeaker counted down the seconds in Polish and German, and then from the launch pad there was a light like the rising sun, followed by a sound like thunder. At first he thought the rocket had indeed blown up, but when his eyes adjusted he could see that it was still there, rising on a tail of flame straight and true into the sky.

This, he knew, was power on a scale he had never imagined before. The men who had built it had taken raw elemental fire and tamed it. Someday, he knew, there would be men riding atop rockets like these, setting out like Columbus into uncharted waters, testing their manhood against the unknown.

The Germans and Poles were opening up a new frontier, and with that phrase he knew what his article would be called. But he knew more than that. He knew that his next novel would be about a man riding a rocket like this into space, braving the unknown. It was burning in him as brightly as the rocket flame.

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