The Near Side of a Faraway Moon

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Neil Armstrong on the moon
Neil Armstrong on the moon

There was no doubt about it. You could ask anyone who walked the streets of Pitner’s Junction, if perchance the community had any streets. The world was flat. If you stood beneath the third oak tree to the left, just behind cemetery and on the far side of the all-day dinner on the ground and graveyard working, you could see the edge. Every afternoon at varying times of the year, the sun simply reached the edge of it all and dropped off. I know. I was raised on the cusp of Pitner’s Junction, Texas. In fact, the only two things that ever came out of Pitner’s Junction were me and Highway 259. The “world is flat” folks stayed behind. Might as well. Couldn’t go much farther than the sunset anyway.

I kept looking for the edge.

Didn’t find it.

And pretty much forgot about the gospel of my raising until I happened to run across a bunch of stargazers, vortex sitters, and all-around wunderkinds who called themselves, wrapped in a veil of reverence, the Flat Earth Society.

I knew them well.

Didn’t recognize any of them.

But I must have grown up with their kinfolks.

The Flat Earth Society, I’m told, was one of the first organizations that had the audacity and gall to accuse NASA of faking the moon landings.

Didn’t go there, the flat earthers said.

Couldn’t go there.

Too far.

Too high.

Gas was cheap, but there wasn’t enough of it.

And, besides, the solar flares, solar winds, cosmic rays, coronal mass ejections, and Van Allen radiation made such a trip absolutely impossible.

Neil Armstrong's footprint on the moon
Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon

If Flash Gordon hadn’t really gotten to the planets, then Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn’t either. Just like Flash and the evil Ming the Merciless, the flat earthers swore, Neil, Buzz, and the boys staged it all on a Hollywood movie lot.

All of America was afraid that Russia would beat us to the moon.

The race for space was spinning out of control.

Cold war prestige was at stake.

So the government did what the government does best.

NASA faked the whole thing.

I had heard it differently. Same message. Different voice.

I happened to be in a beer joint on the outskirts of Chatsworth, Georgia, the day Neil Armstrong made that small step for man and giant leap for mankind.  The beer joint looked pretty much the way it was supposed to in the middle of a hot, muggy, thirsty afternoon. Dark. Cool. A naked light bulb hung from the ceiling. Another one above the bar. Sawdust on the floor. It had not been swept out in a while. Maybe never. Keep it dark. Can’t see the dirt. Dust in your throat? Wash it down with a beer.

The room was crowded and far too quiet.

Men sat hunkered over their tables, leaning on their elbows, their gimme caps pushed back, staring, never blinking, at an old black and white television set stuck on the back wall above the bar.

The picture was blurred by patches of static that looked like snow and sleet on the scene.

No one cared.

They were watching the once and glorious achievement of their lifetime. A lunar module had landed on the surface of the moon, some place called, if the man on the tee-vee could be believed, Tranquility Base, and they had seen it with their own eyes, which called for another beer.

They had feared a crash. They were afraid they would be watching good men die a long way from home. A devout feeling of hope and pride had been dimmed by the shadow of impending doom. Their pulse quickened. Their nerves quivered. Their shoulders were rock solid tense.

But there it was.

The Eagle had landed, which called for another beer.

The beer bottles were sweating.

So were the gentlemen of Chatsworth.

A farmer sat alone at the far end of the bar. He had been withered by time, cold rains, famine, hard work, and an occasional bout with the lovesick blues.  He wore bib-overalls and a straw hat. He had not bothered to remove it. He had been sipping on the same beer for much of the afternoon. He knew all about the advances of technology in a world grown too modern for him. He had broke new ground behind a mule, then astride a tractor. He had watched the world around him slowly change, usually against his will.

He had never embraced change, but he had accepted it.

But this was too much.

He nodded toward the television. “That’s not happening,” he said.

The gentlemen of Chatsworth were stunned. Not a sound could be heard, with the possible exception of another beer being opened.

“Somebody’s lying to you,” he said.

Every eye turned toward him.

“Ain’t nothing but a hoax,” he said.

The gentlemen of Chatsworth frowned.

“How do you figure that?” I asked.

The old man took a long, slow draw on his beer bottle, wiped the froth from his mouth, and studied the blurry black and white screen one more time. He spoke with the deep, growling voice of a mountain oracle.

“We can’t get pictures from the moon,” he said. “Hell, we can’t even get pictures from Atlanta.”

The heads nodded. Somebody ordered another beer.

The man wearing the stained white apron behind the bar turned off the television. Might as well, he thought. Couldn’t argue with common sense.



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