Elementary school students in 1960s Houston were rarely treated to field trips. Maybe it was different in other places with a richer array of cultural offerings, but I could look forward, year after year, to precisely two escapes from the stultifying routine of Garden Oaks Elementary. There would be one trip to Jones Hall for a dose of classical music, courtesy of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and one to the Museum of Natural Science. The predictability did nothing to diminish the giddy joy of getting an officially sanctioned day away from school (no hope of snow days in Houston).
It was on one of these trips to the Museum of Natural Science that I lost a tooth. I had begun wiggling it free before heading to school that morning, and continued worrying it through the long bus ride to the museum. All that diligence finally paid off when, right in the middle of the planetarium show, tooth and gum parted company. In that pitch-black room, with the celestial pageant deployed in surreal vividness above me, I revisited this more mundane -- but even more vivid -- wonder of having a part of one’s body break free of its moorings to make its own way in the world. I was less attentive to the rest of the show than to the ferrous tang of blood in my mouth and the not-quite-self, not-quite-other object between my fingers.
We swarmed out of the planetarium and into the museum proper with its sparse and disjointed collection of technological artifacts, scrounged from the area’s oil and space industries. I had seen all of this stuff so many times that most of it had lost any power of fascination that it might have once had… except for one thing: standing prominently in the middle of the display hall was one of the actual space capsules from the Mercury program.
Before the 3-man Apollo capsules, before the 2-man Gemini capsules, NASA had hurled a solitary pilot out into the void, wedged into this funnel-shaped sarcophagus. I don’t know if kids today could relate to the fascination that this monument to sheer gutsiness aroused in a boy of that era. The very idea of sending humans into orbit was still unfathomably strange and wondrous. Every launch from what was then known as Cape Canaveral prompted every classroom in the country to scrap the curriculum du jour and wheel out the TV. It felt like we were witnessing something sacred, a transcendence of our limitations. And here, with not even so much as a partition rope between us, was a relic of these sacred rites.
The capsule looked improbably small and inglorious. Its exterior was clad in dull gray sheet metal striated with vent slots. Inside, visible through a small window, sat a mannequin of an astronaut enclosed on all sides by toggle switches, dials and gauges. So seamless was the connection between man and machine that the impression was less of a man in a container than of a man wearing a magical flying carapace. I was transported by the idea that this very thing had been into the void and back. The flames of re-entry had once scoured this slotted skin under my palm.
As I leaned in closer, my hands on the capsule’s flanks, to look through the window, I heard a faint plink! Only then did I remember the tooth that I had been holding all of this time. I dropped to the floor to look for it, but it wasn’t there. It had fallen through one of the slots in the capsule’s shell. What was this thing now?Yusan Graham