Thursday, January 28, 2016

'Picture of a Man' -- a WWII story

The address at the top of the stale, typewritten story in Harry's files reads: H.M. Zubkoff, 192 Crestwood Ave., Buffalo 16, New York. It means he wrote it before he moved to Maryland in 1949, and before he turned 29. We can assume he was back from his post-war stint with the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps. He served in France and Germany on a mission to hunt down Nazi war criminals and gather evidence for the Nuremberg Trials. Harry spoke little about those years, vowing silence because, he would say, "If I tell you, they'll kill me." He stated for the WWII Veteran's History Project, however, that he had spoken extensively with Holocaust survivors in internment camps. Writing fictional stories may have given him an outlet to “reveal” his observations and experience. The top photo in the graphic below is Harry in Germany, 1946. We can only guess about the other two -- one looks like a mass gravesite; the other a soldier with a whip. Did he confiscate these during his mission?

The little man worked silently, his blunt, efficient little fingers moving as of their own volition. He was a mild looking man, with greyish hair, thinning at the top, and watery blue eyes looking out of a face on which many hardships had etched deep lines. Now and then he glanced furtively up at the uniformed guard, standing so rigidly at the end of the aisle.

Around him, the noises of mass-production in an underground factory swelled in a discordant volume of sound, the vibrations causing the air itself to almost visibly palpitate in the deafening, maddening din.

On balconies, circling and crisscrossing the huge cavern, other guards stood or leaned against the wood railings, peering intently into the inferno below, some even using binoculars.

The sudden, unearthly shriek of a whistle cut through the clamor like a knife. Within thirty seconds the almost unbearable noise was replaced by an even more unwelcome, deadly silence. Every man stood stiffly at attention by his machine, eyes downcast. The measured tramp of two highly polished pairs of boots resounded through the silence as they made their way in unison to a spot two aisles away. Then that hated voice spoke in metallic tones over the loudspeaker.

“Maurice deWitt, for inefficiency in the performance of his work. Twenty lashes!”

Not a face lifted, not a muscle twitched, not an eye blinked, and yet the already tense atmosphere of the underground cavern was suddenly surcharged with electricity – the electricity generated by the soul-consuming hatred of a thousand slave laborers. The guards must have sensed it, for they became even more watchful, alert for the slightest indication of an outbreak.

The little man had not moved a muscle. Like the rest, he had given no sign that he had heard. But behind the impassive mask of his face he knew, from bitter experience, only too well what those words meant. His body still bore the scars from the twenty lashes he had received months before. And beneath his thinning patch of greyish hair, his thoughts boiled and seethed with all the concentrated fury of his terrible hatred.

Outwardly, he gave no sign of the turmoil within. For he must not give his thoughts away. He must wait and bide his time. His day would come. And when it did, let those Nazi pigs beware.

They had led the offender away to the “Area of Punishment” and now, as he stood motionless at his bench, he could hear the whip whistling as it slashed its way through the air to cut its victim’s back into ribbons. But no shrieks of agony. No, these poor, tired, broken slaves no longer cried out with pain. They knew how the Nazi beasts loved the sight of their suffering, how they licked their chops like hungry dogs at the prospect of inflicting pain and torture on these defenseless slaves. And they had long since ceased crying out at their beatings. Not out of bravery, but rather out of spite. Now their silence in their torment was even more terrible than their screams.

The Nazis were baffled by this awful silence in the face of their brutality. Bewildered and angry, they continued to heap more and more abuse on these “stupid slaves”.

The sudden unearthly shriek of a whistle cut through the silence like a knife. Within thirty seconds, the deadly silence was replaced by the almost unbearable noises of mass production in an underground factory. Life resumed its maddening monotony to a thousand slave laborers as they again took up the routine of production.

The little man worked silently, his blunt, efficient little fingers moving as of their own volition. But they turned out less than half the amount of work of which they were capable. His heart was heavy as he performed the mechanical motions of his job. How could he, how could they ever throw off the yoke of this tyrannical oppressor? How could they ever again attain their freedom, their hopes, their happiness? Their only possible hope lay with the American Armies advancing from the West. God grant that they would arrive soon. Neither he nor his people could last much longer under these conditions. And the Nazis had a way of dealing with men who have outlived their usefulness.

That night, as he rested fitfully on a filthy straw mat, he could hear the intermittent rumbling of the big guns to the West. They kept time with the tom-tom beating of his heart and he almost slept well.

In the morning the guns sounded considerably closer and the Nazi guards were visibly nervous as they herded their captives toward the yawning hole in the ground that was the entrance to the hated factory.

Once again the utterly meaningless routine of production absorbed his attention, while the air resounded to the vibrations of the infernal machines.

But as he glanced surreptitiously around the huge hall, he noted that there seemed to be many guards missing from their posts. So, they were worried! And they had good cause to be, too.

It was late in the afternoon when he discovered that the guards had all disappeared. The corners of the aisles, the balconies circling and crisscrossing above, all were deserted. Fearful lest it be another of their fiendish tricks, he continued his methodical output of work.

Gradually others became aware of this curious phenomenon of the missing guards. But it was not until after dark, not until the first American patrol cautiously advanced into the tunnels with leveled guns, that they realized that their days of slavery were over, that their dim, half-forgotten hopes of freedom were at last being realized.

* * *

Two days had passed, two eventful days in which the Americans had consolidated their position and in which the slaves, once more restored to the rightful state of free humanity, had celebrated. Many were on their way home, if their homes were still standing. Many had elected to stay and work their machines voluntarily to produce for their newfound allies. And so, the third day found the underground factory once more in the full swing of production.

The little man worked silently, his blunt efficient little fingers moving as of their own volition. He was a mild looking man, with greyish hair, thinning at the top, but his bright blue eyes looked out of a face on which many hardships had etched deep lines. Now and then, he glanced absently up at the uniformed guard, lounging at the end of the aisle. Occasionally, the guard winked at him, a simple act which caused his heart to beat warmly in him.

Around him the noises of mass production in an underground factory swelled in an harmonious volume of sound, a huge symphonic arrangement as the machines beat out their pattern of music, producing weapons for victory.

He would stay here and work till his job was finished, till the beasts of nazidom were wiped from the face of the earth. Then, and only then, would he feel free to go home, to take up the threads of his shattered life and rebuild all that had been destroyed in the brief days of the tyrant.

The little man worked silently, his blunt efficient little fingers moving as of their own volition.


Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Harry's blizzard ballad

My brother took this photo of our house in Silver Spring, MD. I believe it was the 1966 blizzard.

Who remembers the Blizzard of January 1966? (This news video might spark your memory.) As snow began falling, my dad left work at the Pentagon to drive a few staffers home in Virginia suburbs before heading back to Maryland. However, by the time they arrived at the first residence, conditions worsened, leaving four women plus Harry stranded in an apartment. 

We kids were home
from school for a week or more (yay!), while our dad called daily with an update. Once the train was up and running, he traveled back to Maryland, but left his car snowed in. What I didn’t know until my recent discovery -- Harry wrote a poem about his little, winter adventure and attached it to the Feb 3, 1966, edition of the Current News, his Defense Department publication.

The Ballad of Harry and Four

Here and there the snow lay fallen,
Evening nigh and home was calling.
Work was finished, labors over,
They all began to run for cover.
On Saturday.

Ursula, Carol, Jean and Harry,
Hied to supper, stayed to tarry.
And onward, upward piled the snow,
So far as Jeannie’s could they go.
On Saturday.

There stayed Harry, Top Banana,
Urse, Carol, Jean and Anna!
Stayed the evening, spent the night,
The five of them – and all was right.
Till Sunday.

Sabbath came – true paradise,
With Harry center of all eyes.
The four fair maids and Harry rested,
Made helpless by the snow invested.
On Sunday.

There our Harry stayed and dreamed,
While the fair maids pampered, preened.
What mortal has the luck of me,
Who hasn’t dreamed this reverie?
On Sunday.

So passed the night; a new day dawned.
The dreamer’s dream was over.
There may be snow upon the ground,
But Harry was in clover.
Then came Monday.

Alas the news: the road is clear!
Elysium fields turn brown and sere.
Serene, we hope, our Harry slumbers,
Chaste not by virtue, but by numbers.

Seminars and such, also in rhyme

Occasionally my dad was away on other (pre-planned) work-related trips. He attended seminars, conferences, and speech-writing expeditions with the Secretary of Defense -- you know, the usual. And, what did I recently discover? Right! He documented each event with a poem. However, I'm not sure I found a poem for one particular seminar. You see, in November 2013, Harry and my husband were watching a TV program commemorating the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. "I know that guy," said Harry, nonchalantly, pointing to the Dallas police chief in the 1963 video. He explained to my husband that shortly after the assassination, the pressure of the investigation got to the chief, so his department sent him to training for a few weeks. Harry and the chief were partnered as roommates. I imagine they had interesting talks!

Here's an example of a poem from a different seminar:

Executive Seminar Center
Kings Point, NY
February 1965 

Sunday, February 7

So the students came together,
On a grey and rainy day,
Summoned here despite the weather
Some from very far away!

Harry at a mid-'60s work-related event
So they hearkened and they listened
To DeVore and Beck (his boss),
Marked their words with eyes that glistened,
Some were at a total loss.

Gathered and recalled past glories,
Met and got acquainted, too,
Swapped some yarns and told some stories
Learned to know just who was who!

Monday, February 8 

First, the furnace clanged and pounded,
Through the night, before the dawn,
Then the bugle loudly sounded
Like a banshee on the lawn.

Came two speakers here to see us,
Tried to get their message through,
Coffee breaks were timed to free us,
But we grasped a thought or two.

Toured the campus, hit the club,
Found the bar and did some loops,
Then, confound it, here's the rub,
Presenting a retirement poem in 1975
Organized five working groups.

Tuesday, February 9

Now we know who runs the Center,
Who administers the works,
Not DeVore or Beck, his mentor,
They are just the working jerks.

Mrs. Lester, first name Mabel,
She heads up the Center staff,
Rose and Pamela, they're able,
They cut donuts up -- in half.

Listened to a rousing lecture,
On the people "in the know",
Made us think and then conjecture
What would happen if we "go".

The poem goes on to chronicle each day of the two-week seminar, plus a lengthy goodbye poem that mentions all attendees. Another of his "poetic journals" goes for three weeks! Now I understand yet another reason Harry was dubbed the Pentagon Poet Laureate.

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman

Thursday, January 14, 2016

‘Candle’s Flame’ – a story of desire and deceit

Author Harry M. Zubkoff
Mystery, romance, science fiction -- we've seen them all in Harry's stories so far. If you liked those, you'll want to read this one, too. He wrote it while living on Ridge Road in Greenbelt, MD, between 1953 and 1963. I don’t know why he typed his address on some stories and not others; he dated only some as well. I do know that I’d never seen any of them. And, I’m sticking to my theory that he based many on his experience or observation.

Once there was a man named Candle, Abner Candle, and in Candle, as his name would seem to imply, there burned a flame. It was the flame of passion, for Candle was a sensitive man who quietly but intensely appreciated the beauties of nature.

All his life Abner Candle had been extremely shy, with the shyness of true modesty rather than that born of inferiority. It was not surprising, therefore, when he formed a partnership in his small publishing business with a vigorous and aggressive young man named Mark Walker. Opposites do attract. What was surprising, particularly to their closer friends, was the remarkable prosperity with which their business efforts were blessed. Neither of them had any special ability in the publishing field. Yet, their books became best sellers and were sold for fabulous sums to Hollywood. Before long, they became known as the “good-luck” boys. They were inseparable, and even after their offices were expanded to cover the whole top floor of an impressive office building, they continued to share the same room, crowded as it was with only two desks and a wall calendar.

For twenty years Candle and Walker devoted all their energies to the accumulation of money. Abner was a manuscript reader, the one who decided what books to publish. Mark was a negotiator, the one who attracted the writers and signed the contracts. Together they made a team over which other publishers shook their heads and muttered to themselves about. Their success was uncanny, unprecedented in publishing circles. Some said it was because of their complete lack of sophistication. Others said it was in spite of their unbelievable naiveté. But whatever the reason, the Abnark Publishing Company (so named for obvious reasons) continued to publish best sellers, and Candle and Walker became exceedingly wealthy.

Throughout the years, however, one vital element had been missing from their lives. It was only after Abner interested himself in the other details of the business and Mark suddenly became absorbed in the world of books that they simultaneously discovered the existence of women. This was a most disconcerting revelation since, unaware of their lack of sophistication, they had automatically assumed that their worldly wealth implied that they were men of the world.

“After all,” said Abner doubtfully one day, “what good is our wealth if we have no one with whom to share it?”

“Of course,” said Mark, “everybody knows you can’t take it with you.” And with these words of wisdom they set about remedying this absurd deficiency in their otherwise complete lives.

* * *

Candle fell in love with the fourth girl from the left, and Walker with the third, in the chorus line at the local burlesque. They started their courtships with candy and flowers but the reception accorded these gifts was somewhat less than enthusiastic. So they graduated to bracelets and necklaces and were agreeably surprised to find their affections warmly reciprocated. For a time they vied with each other to see who could outdo the other in the originality and lavishness of the gifts they bestowed on their dazzled chorus queens. This procedure inevitably culminated in the traditional “coup de grace” in affairs of this kind. Each of them bought an expensive mink coat (at a discount, of course), and the ceremony of wrapping them around the two lovely bodies was rapidly followed by a double wedding ceremony.

Now the two men had finally come of age, so to speak. Not only was their amazing business success the envy and wonder of all their associates, but their marital triumphs were also greeted with awe and astonishment. Each of them bought a palatial residence in which his wife entertained lavishly, and their friends and associates patronized these affairs avidly. There was, of course, always a liberal sprinkling of chorus girls at these parties, pretty young things who went about fingering the drapes and the silverware reverently, and casting wistful eyes at the bachelor-publishers, or the married ones whose wives were absent. Candle and Walker reveled in their newfound popularity, telling each other that now, indeed, they were truly men of the world.

But the two men began to see less and less of each other. At first they were not aware of this fact, but fewer and fewer evenings were spent working together, fewer and fewer early morning conferences were scheduled, and even their cubbyhole office was discarded for two separate rooms, luxuriously furnished (by their wives) in the Hollywood tradition. Their associates noted with uneasiness this rift that was growing between them. It was brought to their attention, diplomatically, by one of the elder statesmen of the publishing business who took them to lunch one day.

“My friends,” he said tactfully, “what is it between you two? Don’t you like each other anymore? In the old days you were never seen apart. Now you’re never seen together. What’s wrong, boys?”

Both men smiled uncertainly and protested that they now had their own homes, their own wives, and their own lives to lead. But inside, each of them knew that he had lost something which he could never recover. They had lost each other.

* * *

As the rift between them grew wider, it became obvious to their friends and associates that their business would suffer accordingly. Together, their judgment and business perspective had somehow coalesced and blossomed, a fact that was borne out by the regularity with which best sellers appeared on their lists. Now individually, they seemed incapable of making decisions. For the first time in twenty years their spring list did not contain at least one book club choice.

Their natural reaction was to blame each other, and this inevitably led to resentment. When their fall list likewise failed to include one best seller, the resentment turned to anger and fury. Then another factor was introduced.

* * *

“Maggie,” said Yvonne one day, “if we don’t hurry up and get out of this, our boys are gonna lose all their dough in this racket.”

“You’re right, Sally,” said Lulu, “I think we better go into our act.”

* * *

“Abner, dear,” said Yvonne, “isn’t Mark just a doll? I’m crazy about him. And such a wonderful dancer, too.”

“Hmph,” said Candle.

“And such thick, black, curly hair,” said Yvonne. “You know, yours is getting awful thin on top.”

“Hmph,” said Candle.

Thus the first seed planted.

* * *

During the next few weeks Candle noted with increasing alarm the frequency of his wife’s visits to the Walkers – and the light which glowed in her eyes whenever they rested on Mark. At first he was amused, then vaguely alarmed, and finally, wildly jealous. His appetite waned, he found himself unable to sleep at night, his complexion took on an unhealthy pallor, and his body and soul were consumed by a passionate hatred for his one-time best friend.

Exactly when he decided to kill Mark was not clear, but it was the logical next step in his distorted thinking. Perhaps it came as a result of his newfound sophistication, or perhaps, after all, it was because of his incredible naivete. On the other hand, it may simply have been due to his nervous stomach. But whatever the reason, the decision was made, and with characteristic abruptness he laid his plans.

* * *

“I should like to buy a-er-ah – pistol,” he said calmly to the pawnbroker.

“Of course,” said the imperturbable pawnbroker, “what size?”

“Size?” said Candle.

“Size,” the pawnbroker agreed. “We have .45's, .38's, .32's, and .22's.”

“Ah yes, size,” said Candle. “Well, let me see, uh-something big enough to do the job at one blow, so to speak. Perhaps a .45.”

“Of course,” said the pawnbroker, “just sign here and step around the corner to the police station for your permit. That will be forty dollars.”

“Permit?” said Candle, vaguely.

“It is not us,” said the pawnbroker, “it is the police. They insist upon it.”

“Well, as a matter of fact,” said Candle thinking fast, “I really wanted a dagger.”

“Naturally,” said the pawnbroker. “We have many beautiful models ranging from ten to a hundred dollars. Just sign this form so that I may register the sale with the police. It is not us,” he added thoughtfully, “it is the police, you understand. They insist upon it. It seems there is some ridiculous law regarding weapons …”

“I was only fooling,” said Candle, “I really came in to buy a-uh-saxophone – yes, that’s it, a saxophone.”

“Of course,” said the pawnbroker smoothly, “we have several fine saxophones – a tenor, alto and bass. You have your union card?”

A slightly glazed look came into Candle’s eyes.

“It is not us, you understand,” said the pawnbroker regretfully, “it is the union, the musicians’ union. They insist that we keep a record of these transactions, and since we do such a large part of our business with members of their – ahem – profession, we think it only wise to cooperate.”

“I just remembered,” said Candle, “I have an appointment.” He backed out of the store, knees shaking. The pawnbroker looked after him sadly, then sighing made some notations in a big, black ledger – in his pawnbroker’s code, of course.

* * *

“I should like to buy some poison,” said Candle.

“Of course,” said the pharmacist. “Rat, roach, ants, termites, ticks or silverfish? Moths, caterpillars, worms, locusts or mosquitoes?”

“Well-ah-perhaps something a bit stronger? Said Candle. “Something which could do the job at one blow, so to speak?”

“Of course,” said the pharmacist. “You have a prescription? Just sign here.”

“Prescription?” blinked Candle.

“You must have a prescription to buy poison,” said the pharmacist. “It is not us, you understand, it is the law.”

“Excuse me,” said Candle, backing out. “I have an appointment.”

The pharmacist muttered to himself for a moment before scribbling in a big, black ledger, in medical hieroglyphics, of course.

* * *

Candle arrived home unnerved, harassed and short tempered, but he was considerably cheered when his wife informed him that poor Mark was terribly ill.

“What’s wrong with him?” he asked.

“I do not know,” she wailed. “I have a splitting headache, or I would go to him and see if I can help. Please, Abner, won’t you go to see him?”

“No,” said Candle, “I hate him. I hope he dies. What’s for supper?”

“Beast,” cried his wife. “He is our friend. And there he lies dying. And poor Maggie – I mean Lulu – all alone.”

“Dying?” said Candle. “Dying! Well, good. In that case, I’ll go see him.”

* * *

Lulu greeted him sobbing in a black (for mourning) negligee, and while he was comforting her on the couch the police came in. Mark Walker was dead. The doctor had diagnosed it as arsenic poisoning, and the police as murder.

Candle’s well-known hatred for his one-time friend, together with the testimony of a certain pawnbroker and a certain pharmacist, helped convict him. The tearful and damaging testimony of the two ex-chorus girls clinched it. He went to the electric chair, protesting his innocence.

* * *

Three months later two beautiful widows in black (for mourning) bathing suits were sunning themselves on the sands at Miami Beach.

“Maggie,” said Yvonne, “the money’s almost gone. I’m afraid the vacation is over.”

“Yes, Sally,” said Lulu sadly, and then, brightening, “how about those two magazine editors we met last week?”


Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

‘The Rescue’ -- a story of outer space

Author Harry M. Zubkoff

Were you glued to the TV during the moon landing in July 1969? Or, maybe your parents told you about their memorable experience. It’s easy to believe that the excitement of the “race to the moon” era in the ‘60s inspired Harry to write this story. And, since he had a “front seat to history” in the Pentagon, as a friend of his suggested, perhaps some little-known drama from that decade further incited his imagination.

The story stunned a world grown over confident at the seeming ease with which man had conquered space. Now a ship lay helpless on the moon. The two gallant men aboard were doomed to die. There was no possibility of rescue. It would take months, even if nothing went wrong, to prepare another ship to go to the moon. But the two men had barely ten days’ worth of oxygen aboard, and that only if the equipment aboard their crippled capsule continued to function. Their death was inevitable, made all the more poignant by the emotionless radio exchanges broadcast for worldwide consumption.

* * * 

Aboard the damaged vessel, Pete Turner absently rolled a piece of hard candy around his mouth and stared at the instrument display panel. As from a distance, he heard Commander Earle Nelson, lying on the couch to his right, bite off a groan.

“It hurts like blazes,” Earle muttered.

“Okay, I’m going to give you a shot,” said Pete. There were six shots of morphine in the first-aid kit, not enough to keep Earle comfortable for long, he thought grimly. The shot administered, he cut away the overall from Earle’s leg. “I should have done this sooner,” he said, noting the swelling.

“We had to report first,” said Earle. “Besides,” he grinned weakly, “what difference can an hour or two make?”

“Well,” Pete looked around, “I’ll need something for a splint.” His eyes settled on a plastic-coated arm rest of his reclining seat. He picked it up, hefted it thoughtfully. “Okay, pal,” he turned to Earle, “brace yourself. Here, bite down on this.” He placed the rubber exerciser in Earle’s mouth and winked at him before setting the leg and securing the splint with adhesive tape. Before he was done, Earle had passed out.

* * *

“You’re absolutely sure? There’s nothing we can do?” The President’s hard eyes bored holes in the Administrator of the Space Agency, who turned helplessly to the Director of the Lunar Landing Program. Both men were silent.

“Well,” the President sighed heavily, “we should have expected it to happen sooner or later. I guess I better make an announcement.” He turned to his Press Secretary. “Set up a nationwide TV broadcast for this evening, Shep, and start drafting up a statement. Now,” turning back to the others, “what about their families?”

“Well,” the Administrator said, “Earle Nelson’s wife is okay. And Pete Turner’s not married, doesn’t have a family.”

“Thank God for small favors,” the President muttered. “Well, make sure Nelson’s wife has company, anyway. This thing,” he added darkly, “is sure to put a crimp in our space program. There’s a lot of pressure building up to cut out the program altogether.” He got up and moved purposefully toward his desk, while the others quietly left.

* * * 

“Comrade General,” the premier impatiently waved aside the others' objections, “I am not asking for explanations or details. I ask only a simple question. Is it possible of accomplishment? Can one person carry out such a mission?”

“Your Excellency,” the General licked his lips, “it theoretically can be done. It is a great risk, you understand, highly dangerous, but perhaps Cheplerovitch can do it.”

“Ah, good.” The Premier rubbed his hands with satisfaction and rose. “Good,” he repeated. “Then, come. I shall present the proposal to the Committee at once.”

The members of the Central Steering Committee, seated around the oblong table in the huge, dark paneled Kremlin conference room, rose as the Premier entered.

“General Charnikov has assured me,” the Premier addressed the group, “that it is technically feasible. Think of it, comrades. Here is an unprecedented opportunity to show the whole world the humanity of the Soviet peoples. We shall send a rescue vessel to save the unfortunate Americans stranded on the moon. In one move, we shall clearly demonstrate both the superiority of the Soviet science and the interest of the Soviet Union in the peaceful uses of outer space. Furthermore, the cosmonaut who performs this heroic feat will be Rania Cheplerovitch, who is not only an accomplished cosmonaut, but is also a medical doctor. If she succeeds, it will be a tremendous propaganda coup for the motherland. And if she fails, then the Soviet Union will have made a gallant attempt and she will die a great martyr.”

He paused, gauging the reactions of those around him and noting by a curved lip, a raised eyebrow, a telltale squint, that he would win this one.

“Those in favor?” he banged the gavel. The decision was unanimous, though not simultaneous. The names of those who hesitated, however fractionally, were quietly noted.

* * *

Col. Ken Murdock checked his chronometer automatically as he flashed over the lunar module lying on its side below.

“Hello, Pete,” he said into the mike, “what’s new?”

“Nothing much,” Pete’s voice came back. “How’s your orbit?”

“On the circle,” said Ken, “as planned.”

“How long you gonna hang around?”

“I dunno yet, Pete. Still waiting for instruction.” He glanced at the timer, set for Maximum Countdown to the return flight. “Max is just about ten days,” he reported. “Anything you want, old buddy? Anything I can do for you?” There was nothing he could do, but there was nothing else to say. When there was no response, he added, “How’s Earle?”

“Still sleeping,” said Pete, “and I don’t want to wake him. I set his leg as well as I could.” Reception was growing fainter as the orbiting command module got further away.

“Well, take it easy, Pete,” said Ken hastily. “I’ll see you next time around.” His ship continued it’s nearly circular orbit 30 miles above the surface.

The radio suddenly crackled to life with the powerful transmission from Mission Control. “Hello, Ken,” it was Jake Walker, in charge of the flight. “Do you read me?”

“Loud and clear, Jake,” he turned up the volume. In about five minutes he would pass around to the back side of the moon where he would be cut off from all communications for some thirty-five minutes.

“I’ll give this to you fast, Ken,” Jake’s voice was urgent. “The Russians have just informed us that they’re willing to try a rescue. They’ve got a ship just about ready to go. We have to iron out the details and procedures, of course, but we can work it all out, I hope. Anyway, think about it. Talk to you later.”

* * *

Rania Cheplerovitch was an unusual woman. At the age of thirty-two, she had three graduate degrees, including medicine, biology, and astronautical engineering, and spoke four languages fluently, including Russian, Chinese, French, and English. To top it off, she was a black-haired, black-eyed beauty who could easily have passed for a motion picture star.

Now she had been entrusted with a most momentous space flight. The eyes of the world were focused on this flight and she was determined to uphold the honor and prestige of the motherland. The problems were monumental, but not insurmountable. They had cut corners to make this ship ready in time, but she was sure she could carry out the mission.

* * *

“Hey, Earle,” Pete shook him gently, reluctant to disturb him, yet conscious of the passage of time. It was the eighth day, and the Russian cosmonaut was due to land in a few hours. He felt Earle’s shoulder tighten as he tried to sit up.

“We got about three hours,” said Pete, “before she gets down. Meanwhile, we better get into our space suits.”

It took him almost an hour to get Earle suited up and another thirty minutes to get his own suit on. Their helmets could wait till they were ready to leave. Carefully, he checked the air conditioning-heating unit on each suit, and then their oxygen tanks. Everything in order, he sat and surveyed the cabin thoughtfully. There were two extra oxygen tanks attached to the floor. He released them, and tied them together with a piece of the 100-ft. nylon cord from the survival kit. Each tank held four hours of precious air.

“Hello, Pete,” Ken’s voice, from the orbit which had gradually shifted far to the north over the past five days, grated faintly from the speaker. “Are you with me?”

“Roger, Ken. How long?”

“She’s in orbit now, Pete, and will be coming down in a half hour. I just gave her your frequency, so she’ll be calling you.”

Suddenly, the capsule was filled with a deep, throaty voice. “Hello, Tovarich, here is Soviet Cosmonaut Cheplerovitch coming. Time of arrival is twenty minutes.”

“Hello, Soviet Cosmonaut,” Pete yelled, seized with a sudden excitement. “Welcome to the Moon.”

He turned to Earle and started putting their space helmets on. When both were securely fastened and the suits were working properly, he popped the hatch, crawled out and dropped to the surface, just two feet below. Then he helped Earle, who had inched his way over to the hatch, out and down, lowering him to a sitting position, the broken leg held awkwardly out. Directly overhead he saw the flaring light of her rocket as her ship came drifting down. It seemed to be headed directly toward them, but as he watched, fascinated, he saw that it was moving away toward the horizon. He followed it all the way down to the point where it disappeared beyond a ridge just before landing, and noted a few landmarks to guide him toward it. Then her voice came over the earphones in his helmet.

“Okay, Mr. Turner. Did you see me?”

“Yes,” he answered. “You’re about a mile and a half, maybe two miles away. We’re starting now and should be there in ten minutes.”

“Ha!” she said. “Is good navigation, no?”

“Is good,” he smiled. “Is very, very good.”

He swung around to Earle and reached down to help him up, but saw at once that something was wrong. He had fainted.

“Come on, Earle,” he shook him and saw the eyelids flutter behind the face-plate, but only a groan answered him. He felt the beads of sweat form on his own forehead. He bent down and tried to lift him, but he was too bulky a bundle. A faint trace of panic hovered in the back of his mind. Now let’s see, he mumbled to himself, you weigh about 180 lbs. and your suit and gear together weigh about 200. That makes 380 lbs. on Earth, so on the moon you weigh one sixth of that or about 63 lbs. He tried again, but could not lift him, and even if he could, he knew he would not be able to carry him.

He climbed back into the capsule and ripped out Earle’s reclining seat to use as a stretcher. Back outside, he laid it on the ground, rolled Earle on to it, and tied him carefully down. Two more lengths of rope made a pair of handles. He hesitated a minute, then doggedly retied the two spare oxygen tanks, one on each arm of the stretched-out seat.

“Hey, Tovarich,” the voice in his ear startled him. “Where are you? Is already twenty minutes.”

“Just a slight delay, sweetheart,” he replied. “We’re leaving now.” He bent, twisted the rope handles around his thick mittens and over his shoulders like a sled dog, and started trudging forward. It was incredibly difficult going. The lunar surface was a mixture of dust, pebbles, rocks and boulders, with ups and downs and slants at crazy, unexpected angles. The dangling oxygen tanks caught on rocks or stuck in the loose soil and time and again he had to free them. Each time he stopped, it required an almost superhuman effort to start again. But start he would, tugging, straining, jerking and cursing, head down and shoulders forward, his body aching, his limbs trembling and every inch of him bathed in rivers of sweat. Every few minutes he would look up to get his bearings, to make sure he was still headed for the Russian ship. The terrain never changed and he had the desperate feeling that he was on an endless treadmill, doomed to an eternity of trudging on a forsaken, lunar landscape.

It took an hour to cover a mile, and then, reaching to top of the ridge, he finally caught sight of the ship, still a half mile away, gleaming in the direct rays of the sun. At the same time, he heard her voice.

“Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, please come in, please come in.” The anxiety could still not mask the sultry, throatiness of that voice.

“I’m here, sweetheart,” he gasped.

“Oh, Mr. Turner,” she exclaimed, with relief, “where have you been? What is wrong?”

He looked up at the ship, trying to think of an answer. It seemed to shimmer in the bright light and a gossamer thin veil was rising from the ground, enveloping it in haze, partially obscuring it. He closed his eyes, squeezing them, and shook his head as though to clear his vision. Suddenly, with an unreal sense of horror, he realized that the ship had sprung a leak and the escaping fuel was misting in the airless void.

“Hey, Comrade,” he called, “are you there?”

“Yes, Tovarich,” the answer came immediately. “Answer me, what is the trouble?”

“You’re losing fuel,” he said. “Can you see it?”

“Yes,” she replied after a long moment. “I can see it.”

“Well,” he licked his lips, his mouth suddenly parched dry, “I’m about a half mile to the East and moving toward you. Let me know when you see me.”

He took a deep breath and started again on the backbreaking, walk toward the ship, wearily dragging Earle’s inert weight behind him. In less than a minute, her voice came through.

“I see you, Mr. Turner,” she said excitedly. “I see you. But what are you pulling?”

He stopped. “It’s Commander Nelson,” he panted. “He’s out cold.”

“Out cold? I do not understand.”



That last half mile was a nightmare. A hundred times he stumbled and fell, lurching erect to stumble and fall again. For minutes at a time, he stood in one spot while his feet moved up and down and his shoulders from side to side in a mockery of forward motion. Through it all her voice was constantly in his ear, urging him on, directing him, guiding him. It became a part of him. A little to the left, a little to the right, stop, get up, there’s a boulder ahead, go around to the left, now turn right, now step up, up, down, straight ahead … and on and on till he imagined it was his own voice.

He was unaware when he reached the ship and stopped blindly at her order, unaware when she donned her own space suit and came out to help him wrestle Earle into the small cabin. He was also unaware that from the time he left his lunar module to the time he reached her ship, three hours had elapsed and her time was running out. But she gave no hint of it when, the cabin atmosphere replenished, she removed their helmets and her own. He blinked his way back to awareness to find her bending over him.

“Sweetheart,” he said, looking up into the black Russian eyes, “nobody told me you were so beautiful.”

She bent over, and kissed him full on the lips. It was as much medicinal as physical, a need for human contact, for her as well as for him. The effect was like a shot of adrenaline. His arms came up and enfolded her, crushing her to him, and she responded, eagerly. At last, gradually, he released her and she straightened up on her knees.

“Ah, Mr. Turner,” she sighed, “you are a Cossack.”

“You can say that again,” it was Earle, eyes open and a weak grin on his face. Instantly she was all business. She felt his forehead, peeled back an eyelid, told him to stick out his tongue, and, finger on the faint pulse in his temple, looked at her watch.

My friend,” she said gravely, “you are a sick man.” She looked at him speculatively a moment longer, took two gigantic pills from a medical box and opened a small canteen. “Here,” she held his head up, “take these.” He got them down and subsided weakly.

“I cannot remove his space suit,” she said quietly to Pete, “so I can do nothing for his leg. And you will soon need the space suits anyway, when you transfer to your own vehicle. Now we must prepare to take off.” While Pete strapped Earle down, and then himself, she triggered her radio. Instantly, there came a torrent of Russian through the speaker. Then, as he listened to the incomprehensible exchange, the torrent gradually subsided and he saw her face pale.

“What is it?” he asked. “What’s going on?”

“It is too late,” she turned and looked him straight in the eye. “We cannot complete the rendezvous with your command ship for two hours and forty minutes,” she said, “which will be past my deadline.”

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“It means,” she replied gently, “I will not have enough fuel to get back home.”

“But, I don’t understand.”

“The fuel leak,” she explained simply.

He could not believe his ears. “Then why did you stay?” he demanded. “Why didn’t you go?”

He stared at her, wordless, painfully aware that he could not let this remarkable woman die on his account, one part of his mind already busy trying to find an alternative.

* * *

The Director of the Lunar Landing Program sighed eloquently and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Mr. President,” he said. “Pete Turner is the commander of that vehicle out there. He didn’t ask us for permission, he just asked for figures on oxygen and fuel consumption. Then he told us what he was doing.”

The President bit down so hard on the stem of his pipe that it cracked. He placed it gently on his desk, controlling himself admirably.

“But he’s risking all their lives for that Russian girl.”

“Well, Mr. President, she risked her life for them. Besides,” the Director added, “Pete is an extremely resourceful man. If anybody can beat the odds he can, and if there’s a fighting chance, he’ll make it.”

“All right, all right, I’ll accept that for the moment. Now tell me, and you,” glancing at his Press Secretary, “pay attention to this, Shep, just what he’s planning to do.”

The Director hid his relief. “His problem,” he said, “is twofold: oxygen and fuel. There is not enough oxygen aboard to support the four of them for the three days it takes to get back to earth. He’s overcoming that in two ways: first, the Russian woman is a doctor, you know, and she’s keeping Earle Nelson sedated, which reduces his oxygen intake considerably; and second, he and Ken Murdock and the Russian are taking turns living in their space suits. They have enough oxygen in their air tanks and spares to spend a total of 26 hours in their suits, which may be just enough to do it.”

“Where did they get it all?” the President asked.

“Pete brought the spare tanks from his landing module and from her ship.”

“What made him do that? Did he know, even then?”

The Director spread his hands. “I told you,” he said, “he’s a remarkable guy. He thinks ahead.”

“Okay. I’ve accepted that,” the President smiled. “Now what about the fuel?”

“Well, that’s a tough one, because the fuel was precisely calculated to bring the three of them back and no more. The Russian girl weighs about 130 lbs., which could mean the difference between getting back or being stuck out there forever. The first thing Pete did was tear everything out of the capsule that he could. You know,” a fleeting smile crossed his face, “we thought we had that capsule down to rock bottom weight, but Pete pulled out almost 100 lbs. That still leaves 30 lbs. of extra weight though, so he decided on no mid-course correction maneuver in order to save fuel. Instead, they’ll go right into a reentry maneuver as soon as possible. That means they’ll come in fast, at a little better than 26,000 miles per hour, but one of our birds came in almost that fast before, you remember, so we’re not too worried about it. The critical thing is that we won’t be able to tell until a few hours beforehand just where they’ll come down. If they come down on land, they’ve had it. If they come down at sea, they’ve got a chance.”

“What kind of a chance?”

“Well, if it were anyone else up there, I’d say the odds were about 10 to 1 against. With Pete up there, I’d say he’s got an even chance.”

The President looked astounded. “You rate him that high?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. President. I do.”

“All right then,” abruptly the President turned away. “I better get the Premier on the line and fill him in.”
* * *

By the time the ship entered the Earth’s gravitational influence, the world’s airwaves were saturated with the story. Even more important than the general concern, however, was the wave of good feeling which swept the Russian and American peoples in their reaction to a commonly shared problem. And out of this joint experience there gradually emerged a new sense of purpose and a new resolve. The interminable discussions about the two space programs and the differences in hardware convinced both countries that each could learn something from the other. And only by entering a new era of cooperation in this highly sophisticated technological field could they do so.

* * *

Though they were quite aware of the furor their flight was generating at home, the astronauts were more concerned with the immediate problems of survival. The three of them checked and rechecked, calculated and recalculated their oxygen and fuel consumption figures. And every hour Rania examined Earle Nelson with increasing anxiety.

The reentry maneuver, when it came, was executed flawlessly, but the fuel burned out a full second short. As a result, they entered the atmosphere at 26,500 miles per hour far from the prearranged point. The metal skin turned white hot in the intense heat of atmospheric friction, so hot that they felt as though they were baking even inside the protective layers of their space suits. For over thirty minutes communications were blacked out, while the whole world held its breath.

The hastily recomputed impact point turned out to be two hundred miles northeast of Australia, but it was too late to dispatch any recovery ships to the area. There were two ships, however, already cruising those waters, a Red Chinese submarine and an Australian aircraft carrier playing a deadly game of hide and seek with each other. The spacecraft splashed down less than two miles from the submerged sub, and was still hissing and steaming when the sub surfaced and pulled alongside.

The captain of the submarine was a professional sailor. He greeted the three astronauts as they were brought aboard and personally supervised the transfer of Earle Nelson to the deck of his gently bobbing vessel. Then, because the facilities aboard his vessel were severely limited, he radioed the Australian carrier, which arrived in just under three hours.

* * *

“A Red Chinese submarine!” the President exclaimed with wonder. “Shep, draft up an open letter to them conveying the deepest thanks of the American people. Now, have you got that speech ready for this evening? Good. Let’s see now, the Soviet premier and I will both arrive in Sydney tomorrow night. Good. Now we’re moving.” He positively chortled with glee. The whole world shared in his excitement when he spoke on TV that evening.

“We thank God,” he intoned solemnly, “that our astronauts survived these unprecedented dangers. As a result of this episode, we are about to enter a new era of peaceful purpose with the peoples of the Soviet Union. At the conclusion of this broadcast, I shall take off for a meeting with the Soviet Premier in Australia, where with God’s help we shall succeed in promoting further cooperation between our two great countries, and, at the same time, open wider the door to peaceful commerce with others. In this connection, I want to mention with special warmth the people of the great mainland of China, whose representatives played so essential a role in rescuing our astronauts.”

There was more of the same, but Pete and Rania, watching the satellite-relayed message together, were no longer paying attention. They were otherwise occupied, locked in a fierce embrace and looking forward to the prospect of spending a lot of time together.


Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman