45. Tech, Boy, “Astrnot.”

A paradox of Floyd County: however isolated and bucolic, it feels the strong influence of a large university, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Located in Blacksburg, in the next county north, Tech has 31,000 students—twice the number of Floyd County residents. With its 8 colleges, 65 bachelor’s degree programs, 125 buildings, 2600 acres, and an airport, it exerts even more of an influence than Radford University in Radford, home of almost 10,000 students.

Impacts of the large research institution are multiple. A number of Floydians commute to the school for employment, or perhaps to businesses started by the Tech-connected. Others retired from teaching or otherwise working there and moved to Floyd County, sometimes to start businesses. Many studied at Tech, for example Morgan Cain Grim, credited in the introduction to Floydiana. Some couples even met there—for example, Chris Prokosch (from Connecticut) and Shannon Green (from Louisiana), who studied architecture and now live in their self-designed house on Little River. Lydeana Martin earned both her graduate degrees from Tech; as the county’s Community and Economic Development Director, she notes that both students and faculty “have helped businesses and non-profits as well as public entities.” The economic life of this area quickens when visitors, especially football fans, sojourn in the county, or when students drive down for the Friday Night Jamboree–perhaps to win the From Farthest Away cap and wear it back in China or Australia.

One public service of Virginia Tech is radio station WVTF in Roanoke. Its classical music, jazz, and NPR somehow penetrate the fundamentalist Christian brambles. On one station a minster declared that people should forgive or face torment. An either-or judgment, it no doubt rested on Biblical observation. But the second term of the premise, burn, undercut the implied, humane value of the first, abandon resentment. A simultaneous incongruity: the tone of the speaker’s admonition seemed blithe, as if nobody should be troubled by the threat of smoky screams.

Back to the university. Of course it sponsors an abundance of cultural events such as concerts, lectures, art shows, and dances. One day I read that the campus would be favored by a celestial pedestrian. Dr. Edgar Mitchell, one of twelve moon-walkers and one of eight still living, at 82, would visit on September 21 and 22, 2013. The event would be co-sponsored by Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology and by Roanoke’s Science Museum of Western Virginia.

And I was electrified by the possibility of photograph of astronaut and grandson.

On Saturday night Dr. Mitchell, founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, would be signing books at the museum in Roanoke, too late and too far for a six-year-old. But on Friday morning, he would be speaking to a crowd of schoolchildren in the Lyric Theatre, Blacksburg. Sid and his family would be driving from Charlotte for the weekend, so I asked if his parents could take the lad out of first grade a day early and arrive Thursday night. When they consented, I made a vow: “We will put a boy in the photo before the end of this Friday!”

Dr. Mitchell’s lunar flight required many a rehearsal. “We had practiced and practiced in simulators,” he recalled for a reporter, the difference being that “we were doing it en route to the moon, rather than doing it here on earth. (Mike Allen, “Space explorer touches down this weekend.” Roanoke Times, 18 Sept., 2013.) And Apollo 14 was built upon numerous earlier expeditions. The previous one was a near-disaster and Apollo 14 itself had problems. First the command/module had trouble docking with the lunar module after it had separated from the larger unit. Then the module’s computer began getting an Abort signal, a problem solved by a second means: Dr. Mitchell manually entered software modifications (issued from Houston) just in time to avoid climbing back into orbit. Then the radar altimeter failed, so there was no information about altitude and groundspeed as the module approached the moon. Again, the glitch was rectified at only 18,000 feet above the surface, just in time to avoid a halt to the landing.

My own mission of securing a framable heirloom for Sidney demanded a trial run. So earlier that week, after a visit to the dentist’s in Blackburg, Marge and I drove downtown, parked in a multistory garage, and walked around the corner to the Lyric Theatre. A staff member directed us a few doors down to a community organization, where a staff member explained that the theatre would be jammed with children, and suggested that instead we see the astronaut when he spoke in the afternoon on campus. She invited me to phone another person for details. On the way out of the parking garage, I took the wrong exit and had to get help from an attendant. Back in Floyd and over the phone, I was assured if my grandson and I showed up in plenty of time for the 1 p.m. event, we’d get a seat. Sensing my uneasiness, she offered to greet us.

Now I had trouble sleeping. Where was this Fralin Hall? It had something to do with a Life Science Institute. How could I search for it with a child in tow? What if we got there and found no seats? Where would we eat lunch if we got there early? What I needed was a complete trial run.

So I found myself in the parking garage once more with Marjory, Grandmother of the Year. We walked down to the campus, then continued on a series of right-lefts. In my hand was a campus map that we’d printed out from the ‘Net, and on which Marge had been able to locate the hall among a complex of non-Fralins. After a heated discussion about whether Map or Landmark should take priority in finding our location, we climbed a rise and recognized the beginning of the vast mall. We then easily found ourselves on the map, crossed a street to another sidewalk, and continued down the left side of the mall. When at last we reached the general area of the venue, we asked people for directions to this supposed building. Responses varied from shaken heads to “Sorrys” to “Maybe ask thems.” We ended up taking a roundabout way up a street and into the front entrance.

I opened the door to the auditorium and scoped it out, noticing its modest capacity (94 seats, I was later told). First I had a vision of 31,000 students trying to cram themselves inside; then of the Bastille as it nearly caved in from the press of citoyens; then of all humanity as it streamed in, pilgrims from the beginning of the species 200,000 years earlier. They wore mammoth-skins, or shawls dyed with extinct plants, or salt-brimmed sailor-hats, or necklaces made of seashells or fine copper-smithing, or sandals covered with dust from eruptions of now cold volcanoes. I relaxed a bit, however, after surveying all the empty chairs and then noting tables inside and out that could hold our bag-lunches. Hoping to make an ally, I introduced myself to a secretary, who was seemed apathetic about having any role in the mission. On the way back to the car, I felt relieved–and even tickled to discover a shortcut from mall to garage.

Back across Little River and home on Annie Lane, I still worried about risks, and heard my wife say “obsession.” But what if, after all that effort, we couldn’t get a photograph? 

The countdown started on Friday morning. Near the door stood a backpack with a Nikon in its case-with-strap, cell phone, sunglasses, sweaters, raincoats, snacks, sandwiches, water, reading material, and of course the wrinkled map. I gave a hard look at the camera to make sure it wouldn’t stay behind. My co-pilot seemed less enthusiastic than I had expected. One indication was the need for a sartorial modification. The “Earth class” of six months earlier gave way reluctantly to a short-sleeved dress-shirt. The boy showed no reluctance to leave brother, blankets, and cartoons, so to forestall any change of heart we blasted off early. 

Glitches. First, as we rounded a curve on Rt. 8, a half-grown bear skidded to a halt next to the road by my fender and swung back up the embankment with an agility encouraged by my horn. Then upon arrival in Blacksburg an ambulance passed us on Main Street; before we turned off toward the garage, I saw red and blue lights at the central intersection. To my companion I said nothing. 

At the garage, Sid raced down from the fifth level as he counted the steps aloud. We made a stop at a nearby coffee house for a bathroom break, a giant latte for Grandpa, and a couple of pastries to help nibble away the wait. Down the pedestrian alley we strolled to the sidewalk along the mall. I held his small hand when he wasn’t occasionally darting, or circling backwards for a few steps, or otherwise exhibiting boy de vivre. On the moon he might have been kicked a smuggled soccer ball across the dusty field. He made a few observations, asked or answered questions, in his choirboy voice, looking as bright as his autumnally red, orange, and blue shirt. His brown shoes looked spiffy and his hazel eyes sparkled over a grin. But when we reached the end of the walk, a few raindrops were falling, and I was somehow lost again, so we took refuge in our slickers and under an arch. After chatting with a few people who had no inkling of anything Fralin, we plodded on, my buddy now somewhat disgruntled.  

At 11:40 a.m., eighty minutes early, I apprehensively opened the door to the auditorium and beheld no one. My breathing returned to near-normal. Then Sid and I walked down the incline and with our raincoats reserved two seats in the front corner, smack in front of the lectern. We then retired to the lobby for food and drink as well as conversation with a reporter from Roanoke. Sid read a little of his picture book on lunar exploration. As time passed and a few people trickled in, I informed one or two that I was the astronaut. 

My contact hadn’t shown up, so I had nobody to intercede for me about the photo. We took our seats at about 12:30. At Sid’s request, I read aloud a few pages from his book and tried to explain a few things with the help of another audience member. I also recited from the printed-out Wikipedia article on Apollo 14. The auditorium became packed and buzzing. Then after a hush Dr. Mitchell appeared, escorted: he surveyed a couple of hundred adults and one child, who little aided the astronaut’s recovery from busloads of kids. This venerable figure then gave a double presentation, one on his lunar trip and the other on the need to conserve the earth’s resources.

When the applause from the standing ovation was still dying down, I arose and humbly asked the nearest official if I could get a photo of the speaker and the boy, who after all had arrived from Floyd ‘way before noon…. “Charlotte…wonderful…heirloom….” While this gentleman hesitantly approached Dr. Mitchell, and while dozens of people crowded toward the front, I turned back to grab Sid: but who is this creature clinging backward to his seat, head buried in arms! 

I had forgotten about his occasional spells of shyness. I tried to pull him off with a mixture of affection, severity, and future ice cream. At last one amused and kindly gentleman offered to take a photo of the three of us so I could comfort the boy with my presence. Dr. Mitchell, although not thrilled by the disruption, was a good sport.

Virginia Tech astronaut photoAfter our accomplishment-ordeal, Sid walked breezily down the sidewalk, mentioning no ice cream, freed from his obligation to be honored. He drew smiles from several young women who must have appreciated his rare youthfulness, his abundant black hair, and his handsome face. He stopped to pick up a colored leaf—“This is for Mommy—“ then zig-zagged over the pavement making a many-hued collection for the whole family. On the way out of the parking garage, I had trouble operating the ticket machine, even though supplied with change by foresight plus Marge’s reminder.

My trip to floyd

The first day of my trip I saw an astrnot who walct on the mon. he shod rely cool picshers. My faverit one is him playing golf en the mon. Wen he hit it so hard it went owt of site in a menet. the secent day I bewt [bought] costuuns. One costum was a scary lion for my bruther. I got a blue ninja costum. The last day I went to my ants [aunt’s] first day of fall party. There where maracas, drums, bells and a litl tiny citn [kitten]. When we drove home me and my bruther wact pipi [Popeye] on TV. We stopt at a rest stop and ran arond. I playd hid and sece.

Eventually Sid will understand that it was Alan Shepard, Jr., who hit the golf ball. Lion and Ninja costumes will turn to rags, many an equinox will come and go, and only Popeye will stay the same. Eventually the grandson will play hide-and-seek with his own grandchildren, to whom he can show The Photograph.