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The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

It seemed so improbable when the book finally arrived that anticlimax best describes my reaction.  Clare and I had bugged Tom so mercilessly over the preceding four or five years that it was the cajoling that seemed normal and the actual existence of the work a threat to our relationship.  A little like the difference between cheesecake and nudity.  Promises, promises.

And then there was the difficulty in extracting the book from the rest of my family. After living with me and among the others for many years, it was exciting to find out what being an astronaut was like.  Not that I didn 't talk with my wife and kids — but I lived and reflected the middle of the reality, and Tom deals in edge effects. That's where the action is. Gregory Bateson's point: the reality is in the difference between things, not the things themselves.  And Tom Wolfe has special prescription contact lenses that filter out the memoranda, meetings, reviews, milestones, simulators, procedures, checklists, protocols, etc., etc., and zoom in on Pete Conrad's enema and Al Shepard's enigmatic double personality.

Well, the wife finished the book and the kids went off to college and I got my chance to confirm first-hand their unsolicited testimonials.  Now mind you, I've seen lots written about the astronauts, the program, the personalities, the challenge.  Most of it bad and inaccurate, grinding some axe or other, some of it accurate and boring, and occasionally a good shot like Mike Collins' Carrying the Fire.  But nothing I've read paints the essential history as Tom Wolfe has done here.

It's far from a complete history since the subject (except for Pete Conrad who is too juicy to pass up) is the fabulous First Seven and the Mercury Program.  Missing from view are the thousands of characters whose brains and determination got the program off the ground.  But that's classical history not Wolfeian.   This is definitely written from the perspective of one "on the bus" — or "in the capsule" as it were.

My own delight with the book came not only from the Tom Wolfe which many (if not most) people appreciate, but from the Tom Wolfe whom only those on the inside can appreciate.   The subtle groupings and relationships between the characters which are captured in a turn of phrase or literary glance brought many slow smiles of amazement to my face.  How could he have picked up such valid subtleties without having lived it?

—Russell Schweickart (Apollo 9 Astronaut)

So Conrad reports at seven one morning and gives himself the enema.  He's supposed to undergo a lower gastrointestinal tract examination that morning.  In the so-called lower G.I. examination, barium is pumped into the subject's bowels; then a little hose with a balloon on the end of it is inserted in the rectum, and the balloon is inflated, blocking the canal to keep the barium from forcing its way out before the radiologist can complete his examination.  After the examination, like everyone who has ever been through the procedure, Conrad now feels as if there are eighty-five pounds of barium in his intestines and they are about to explode. The Smocks inform him that there is no John on this floor. 

He's supposed to pick up the tube that is coming out of his rectum and follow an orderly, who will lead him to a John two floors below. On the tube there is a clamp, and he can release the clamp, deflating the balloon, at the proper time. It's unbelievable! To try to walk, with this explosive load sloshing about in your pelvic saddle, is agony. 

Nevertheless, Conrad has on only the standard bed patient's tunic, the angel robes, open up the back. The tube leading out of his tail to the balloon gizmo is so short that he has to hunch over to about two feet off the floor to carry it in front of him.  His tail is now, as the saying goes, flapping in the breeze, with a tube coming out of it. The orderly has on red cowboy boots.  Conrad is intensely aware of that fact, because he is now hunched over so far that his eyes hit the orderly at about calf level.  He's hunched over, with his tail in the breeze, scuttling like a crab after a pair of red cowboy boots.

Out into a corridor they go, an ordinary public corridor, the full-moon hunchback and the red cowboy boots, amid men, women, children, nurses, nuns, the lot. The red cowboy boots are beginning to trot along like mad. The orderly is no fool.  He's been through this before.  He's been through the whole disaster.  He's seen the explosions. Time is of the essence. There's a hunchback stick of dynamite behind him. To Conrad it becomes more incredible every step of the way. They actually have to go down an elevator — full of sane people — and do their crazy tango through another public hallway — agog with normal human beings — before finally reaching the goddamned john.


ISBN: 0312427565

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