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The Farm

Me and Major Tom

For a short span of time in the sixth grade, I believed in the British space program. Actually, I believed that there had been a British space program back in the '60s, but it had suffered some fantastic tragedy and been disbanded.

A strict form of ignorance born of stark mental isolation was, I feel, the greatest contributing factor - although coincidence and an overactive imagination played their parts.

I didn't read newspapers, didn't even watch the news on television. I didn't read any non-fiction books. I thought the whole point of books was to make something up. Where, I wondered, was the challenge in writing about something that had actually happened?

They did try to teach history in school, but they taught it mostly in large, American chunks that never made it much past WWII. I didn't talk about current events with my friends; we talked about what had been on television the night before.

My mind was marooned on a suburban desert island. Whatever messages in bottles washed ashore were taken as gospel. All it took was a string of specific pop-cultural inputs for my fevered young brain to be off and running on a very strange track with nothing to keep it in check.space suit

Probably the most obvious influence was David Bowie. At the time he was in a sort of radio limbo. He had been big in the '70s, but it was the '80s now, and not enough time had passed to know whether or not his music would, well, stand the test of time.

Bowie, at the time, was not quite old enough to be "classic," but still too much of a pioneer to sell out by making a music video. Yes, believe it or not, there was actually a time before Madonna when some performers thought making a music video was just a cheap ploy to garner attention. Sort of like making a commercial for your song. I think Bowie had, early on, some of that disdain. He certainly seemed to take himself very seriously as an Artist. An Artist with a capital "A."

The only Bowie videos I can even remember from that time period were "Modern Love" - which is just concert footage - and "China Girl," which, well, was just a sucky video that was trying too hard to rip off Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" and not doing a very good job of it.

I got into Bowie - and when I say "into" I should make it clear that I was never a rabid fan of the man, his stage personas, or his music the way some people got to be - from this one time he played on "Saturday Night Live." He was wearing what I can only describe as an extremely macho evening gown which, for some reason, I thought was cool. It also weirded-out my parents, which I thought was cooler.

"Space Oddity" wasn't one of my favorite songs, but I did give it a special place in my heart. I thought that the line, "floating in a most peculiar way," was a drug reference, and it tickled my young sensibilities.

Now the song "Major Tom" was one of my favorite songs, a classic little one-hit-wonder by Peter Schilling in 1982. That it was one of the first (to my memory) major music videos only added to its impact.

It may seem strange that music and music videos are inexorably linked together in my memory. Perhaps it's part of the way my memory works. Or maybe it's an after-effect of the 1980s, which was a very synthetic and superficial time. I can remember myself stretched out on my parents' living room rug at midnight watching "Major Tom" on "Friday Night Videos" (not MTV - my parents were the last people in America to get cable, and I still feel a deep adolescent resentment toward them on that score).

I was completely captivated by this old stock footage of the Apollo missions and that syncopated synthesizer beat. I remember the ending chorus, "earth below us, drifting… falling… floating weightless, calling, coming home," to be especially moving.

I offer as testimony to my lack of sophistication that it was several weeks before I realized that both songs were essentially telling the same story. The novelty of the new song had pushed the old one below my threshold of consciousness. It was only when I heard "Space Oddity" again at a friend's house that wheels began turning in my mind.

Major Tom. Ground Control. Leaving the capsule. Some sort of crisis. Not responding. A final message to his wife …

And of course, Tom's final mysterious end. In both songs it's clear he doesn't make it back to Earth. What struck me very deeply was that, in the end, it seems as if instead of dying, Major Tom is somehow transformed.

Which brings me to the two films that were fuel to the fire these songs had sparked in striking against one another.

The first was little more than a handful of dry kindling I came across watching "Creature Feature" on some Sunday morning. The Quatermas Experiment was a science-fiction/horror B-movie import from Great Britain. It tells the story of a British space program that has one of its deep-space rockets malfunction for some mysterious reason and come crashing into the English countryside.

The video flight recorder shows the crew encountering a strange, other-dimensional force. The only surviving crewman begins to slowly transform into this bizarre tentacled monster that eventually gets hunted down and electrocuted in Westminster Cathedral.

Not that great a movie, really. The most remarkable thing you can say about it is that the producers somehow got permission to film the climax of a cheesy low-budget movie inside Westminster Cathedral.

The second movie took the smoldering embers of my dawning associations and threw a bucket of gasoline on them.

Stanley Kubrick's 2001 hit network TV for the first time in 1982, and it absolutely blew my mind in several different directions. Astronaut Dave has a showdown with an insane computer, leaves his ship (read: the capsule), and goes out to meet the Monolith. Then the weird lightshow ("now the light commands") and his journey "beyond the infinite," followed by a few games with time and space. The movie ends with Dave, now transformed into a weird glowing space-baby, floating above the earth in - and I cannot stress this strongly enough - a most peculiar way.

I was so floored I stayed glued to the set to watch the end credits roll. And at the very end, what should appear but, "Filmed at Pinehurst Studios - England."

What more confirmation could I possibly need? Once I saw it, I began to see it everywhere. Elton John's "Rocket Man." The origin of the comic book superhero team The Fantastic Four. Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon." Once you have a pattern, almost anything can be made to fit that pattern if you're creative enough.

It's probably a good thing the space program never came up in science class that year. I think we were doing an extended biology unit or something. I was then, as I am now, a horrific smart-alec know-it-all, ready to hold forth at a moment's notice on topics I barely grasp, chaining facts and half-facts, embellishments, and outright lies together with such casual assurance that I hardly smell the bullshit I'm shoveling.

No, I never managed to make a total laughingstock out of myself. Who knows? Maybe it would have been a character-building moment for me if I had. I might even have been forced to do some independent research and investigation.

That's actually the thing that amazes me the most as I examine my childhood belief in - my faith in, actually - Major Tom. It was something I never questioned and never pursued. Even at that young age I knew how to work a card catalog, knew how to use an encyclopedia. I was never shy about asking questions of any adult - parents, teachers, passers-by, anyone.

Here my young mind had experienced a revelation about the hand of some other-worldly presence reaching out to touch a single human being, and I asked exactly no one about it.

I was a pretty lazy kid, but not that lazy.

I think the reason I never asked was because I knew what kind of answers I would get. "There was no British space program," "Nothing ever happened to any Major Tom," "It's all just a story in a song." I knew the answers the adults would give me … and I knew those answers were wrong.

They hadn't done what I had done. They hadn't put the pieces together for themselves. I had deciphered a code hidden in the fabric of the world. Something only a few special people - musicians, filmmakers, artists - had managed to do.

I knew there was a real space program. Being an astronaut, after all, was something a kid in America could dream of growing up to be (not that I ever did). I knew that there had been real accidents in space. I was born in 1970, the year of Apollo XIII. For questions about those things you could go to the books and the teachers for more information. Information was all there was to be had.

But for revelation, for that you had to rely on yourself, and on how well you listened to the universe. To my young mind it was a simple matter of conspiracy. No one knew about it because the powers-that-be didn't want such dangerous information to be public knowledge. To my present-day mind, I know it was a question of religious faith. And any story of travel, crisis, and transformation is really a story about God. Especially to an adolescent boy.

My exact moment of disillusion is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps there was a filmstrip in some class or another that discussed how Britain rebuilt itself after the Second World War. Maybe I read somewhere about the first Englishman in outer space and found out he was a part of an American mission.

But I don't think so. I think I would have dismissed any input along those lines as disinformation. I think the truth is that I lost faith. It isn't easy keeping it when you have to keep it a secret. A faith needs to be shared in order to thrive. That's why they build churches to seat so many people.

Childhood faith is one of those things that tends to fade as we grow older, like an imaginary friend. And instead of being the person who knows what no one else knows, you become the person who knows what everyone knows, as in, "Oh, everyone knows that."


I'm more of a shower person than a bath person when it comes to keeping myself clean. But every so often I'll take a long, hot bath, and invariably, at some point, I fold up as much of myself as will fit under the water (it's a small tub, I'm a large guy), take a deep breath, and hold it for as long as possible.

And in that fading, floating, peculiar moment as the blood is singing in my ears, it becomes a sacrament to me. I am transformed. As surely as the bread at communion becomes the body of Christ, my body becomes … becomes something else. I check ignition, and God's love is with me.

Then I realize I'm practicing a religion based on a David Bowie song, become acutely self-conscious, and come up for air.