Daytalking (from Completely in the Dark), Nightwalking (courtesy of ShinyRobot), and Stargazing (again, CITD).

Mars Ain’t the Kind of Place to Raise Your Kids

“‘One thing,’ he said later, ‘it’s quick in space. Death. It’s over like that. You don’t linger. Most of the time you don’t even know it. You’re dead and that’s it.’”
— “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury

HE LAST THING I ever thought I’d do was write about Ray Bradbury again. After all, I met the man just twice: once in the early 1990s, and the last time in 2000. But “Uncle Ray” has a way of becoming the ghost of Hamlet’s father, skulking about after dark, rattling his literary chains on the parapet of consciousness, and urging me toward a writing future I wasn’t ever sure I wanted in the first place.

In other words, I think I gotta heed the spirit and just go with this.

Bradbury wrote about humans torching books, the distant planets of our solar system, dandelion wine in summer and machines that created joy and misery, ghosts and ventriloquists, carnival barkers who sold lightning, and children who dreamed of the stars.

All miracles, really.

As a writer, Bradbury inspired me in his gentle, remote-uncle way, steering me toward places I never imagined. I might have wished my own father was more like him, but that was never to be. Maybe that’s why there are extended families — godfathers and great uncles, stepmothers and crazy aunts — people whose very existence reminds us there’s more to life than just the people we’ve always known.

But, in truth, this post isn’t about Mars, even though Uncle Ray was fascinated by the Red Planet for most of his life. The Martian Chronicles is his second most popular book after Fahrenheit 451.

My thoughts recently turned to The Illustrated Man, a collection of short stories, after I learned a surprising fact — one that fused literature to music and science and how all that became something I wanted to write about in my own life.

“…the blue stars of evening were there, and the red planet Mars was rising in the East.”
— “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury

FIRST, IT’S A story about fathers and sons.

Bradbury doesn’t say that outright, but his short story “The Rocket Man,” from The Illustrated Man, conveys it. I hadn’t read it until recently, and I confess it’s one of the best Bradbury stories I’ve come across. It’s spare and achieves one of the finest things Bradbury does in his science fiction writing — limiting the effects of technology and focusing on human behavior. It’s what separates him from other science fiction writers — the human factor, the emotions and repercussions of technology — and makes it important even to this day. (A great example is the story’s beginning, with young Doug’s mother surrounded by “electrical fireflies” — miniature lighting drones, if you will — that help the family see at night.) You must go read the story in full.

James Bingham’s interior artwork for “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury, Argosy, February 1952, from Bradbury: An Illustrated Life by Jerry Weist, William Morrow, 2002.

But for now, here’s a quick summary:

A mother and son await visitations from the father who is off working in a distant galaxy (“solar system work” equals the easy stuff, “farther away” means longer gigs) and stops home every 3­ or 4 years for stays that never seem to last long. The son, Doug, aches to pick up spaceman tips from him. Any male who has known or longed for that relationship will understand this story. Rocket Daddy tells Doug: “Don’t ever be a Rocket Man.” The risks are too great. Mother knows this and averts her eyes whenever Doug’s father suddenly arrives back home.

While the family enjoys a serene dinner, Doug asks his father, “What’s it like, out in space?” Mother shoots Doug an anxious glance, but it’s too late. His father would soon be leaving. Maybe going to Mars. Maybe farther away.

And maybe never returning home again.

“‘…when you’re out there you want to be here, and when you’re here you want to be out there. Don’t start that. Don’t let it get a hold of you.’”
— “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury

I FIRST HEARD Elton John’s “Rocket Man” in 1972, when it came out, on what was then referred to as “AM radio.”

So, yeah. I’m old.

After 1970, I boarded the grade school bus to see classmates with long hair and loud clothing. It was crazy. But I definitely wanted a piece of the action.

It was an odd time to be a kid — like growing up on Mars, I guess. The culture that rounded the corner of 1960 looked much like it did the decade before: crew cuts, boss cars, organization-man careers and commutes, and hardworking women who had suddenly become “homemakers.”

Ten years later the world slammed on the brakes. Woodstock, the counterculture, and the deepening conflict in Vietnam loosened things up — not necessarily in a good way, at least for those who fondly remembered Eisenhower, Mom, and apple pie. After 1970, I boarded the grade school bus to see classmates with long hair and loud clothing. It was crazy. But I definitely wanted a piece of the action.

And the music was so odd. We kids talked about it a lot. In “Rocket Man,” the singer even swore! “In fact, it’s cold as hell,” he sang, which we found provocative. In biology lab we had fetal pigs to dissect, so whenever we were given extra homework, we shrugged and joked, “And all the science, I don’t understand…”

And everyone knew what you meant.

I loved the radio and listened to it at night before falling asleep. Radio was a magical place — even down to the station alerts at the top of the hour announcing the day’s national news. The local news and weather broke in, the DJ picked up some loose ends, then dropped the needle on that opening chord of “Rocket Man,” its singer right in your ear: “She packed my bags last night preflight…”

Elton John’s song was spare and chilling. At the time, we kids assumed it was just riding the coattails of an earlier “space song” by David Bowie, “Space Oddity,” which I remember quite liking, too. So, thanks to a piece by Medium writer Corey McComb, I was astonished to learn it was based on the Bradbury story. Lyricist Bernie Taupin lays it out here. (It’s even more hilarious to learn that Elton didn’t know its source at the time he wrote it.) Taupin’s lyrics are hauntingly similar to the tone of Bradbury’s short story.

And, oddly, to my own story.

“I remember my father that afternoon, digging and digging in the garden, like an animal after something, it seemed. There he was with his long dark arms moving swiftly, planting, tamping, fixing, cutting, pruning, his dark face always down to the soil, his eyes always down to what he was doing, never up to the sky, never looking at me or Mother…”
— “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury

MY LATE FATHER, Paul, was a sort of Rocket Man.

As project manager at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., he specialized in designing clean-room facilities for hospitals and medical centers. But at some point in the late 1960s, NASA engaged his services.

I remember my brother and I joining him while Mom was on shift at the Montgomery County Hospital to some government facility where he needed a security clearance and we had to wait with a receptionist while he handled business. I wish I could remember what that was, but I recall him telling us there was possible contamination and we had to stay where we were until he came to get us. All I recall is the sterile white tile walls and the building’s thrumming silence. After Dad arrived home from work, he usually went straight to the garden. He was happier then. Now that I think of it, “Rocket Man” echoes my father’s experience: “I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife/It’s lonely in outer space…” I think Dad was lonely during his workday, but he knew he was doing everything for a larger purpose.

And there I was, just feet from my parents’ bedroom listening to “Rocket Man” on the radio and imagining what it must be like to have to do something day in and day out you really didn’t want to do, but needed to do to keep your family alive. Add to that your own yearnings — to feel the earth beneath your fingers, or in my father’s case, bait a hook to catch a fish — and there’s a complex connection between father and son that is nearly unspoken.

Well, it was never spoken. Dad’s last “mission” was to retire in Florida in the early 1990s. In 2008, while reclining in his favorite chair in his favorite room, he never came back down to Earth.

“And he’d walk away down the street, not taking a helicopter or beetle or bus, just walking with his uniform hidden in his small underarm case; he didn’t want anyone to think he was vain about being a Rocket Man.”
— “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury

JUST OVER A month after “Rocket Man” hit the airwaves in March 1972, the second-to-last NASA lunar mission, Apollo 16, touched down on the Moon. While doing research on this piece I stumbled across a tidbit that adds to the blended story of Elton, Bernie, Ray, Paul, and, well — me, I guess.

But we need to add one more name: the real Rocket Man, Apollo 16 astronaut and Lunar Module Pilot Charles M. Duke, Jr.

Apollo 16 astronaut and Lunar Module Pilot Charles M. Duke, Jr. (NASA, public domain)

As a kid, I’d followed most of the Apollo missions, but the “Moon Buggy” flight fell off my radar, probably because I was hitting my moody preteen years (and was listening to Elton John on the radio). What I didn’t know was that Duke had left a photo of himself with his wife and two boys on the lunar surface. I reached out to the former astronaut (now 83 and living in Texas) to interview him firsthand about his thoughts on that act. I even left a voicemail and waited for a call back. No dice.

An official NASA photo of the family snapshot includes his footprint, too, so I wondered how his sons — his “Dougs” — felt when they saw the image. Then I wondered about what as-yet-undiscovered tribute to our family my father may have left that wasn’t so publicly made (or so distantly placed). Maybe one day I’ll find out. Soon the Duke family portrait will have been on the Moon for 50 years — a mere blink, of course, in the vast span of time.

It’s a mysterious blending of the improbable, the fantastic, the wonderful, the mundane, the everything Uncle Ray would’ve loved. I believe Bradbury cheered on Apollo 16 even as it was happening back in 1972. He might have imagined a kid staying up late at night, thinking about his future, listening to the radio, his heart churning with emotion, wondering about the echoey singer who seems to know something about loss and longing.

And Uncle Ray might have been applauding when the Rocket Man left his family photo on the Moon, knowing it was going to be there for a long, long time.

Michael Maupin is chief storyteller at StoryShed Learning & Media LLC, and blogs from Minneapolis, Minn. A recovering screenwriter, he launched his WordPress blog Completely in the Dark (completelydark.com) in 2001 to explore narrative in filmmaking. In 2008, however, his parents died, so he switched focus to family stories — trying to make sense of life while still being “completely in the dark.”

Writer, editor, and media maker. Blogs at Completely in the Dark (www.completelydark.com) and lives in Minneapolis, MN. I notice things.

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