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Spring 2017

The Moon, the World, the Dream

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Clifford Thompson

I grew up in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood called Deanwood, where daily life did not involve a sense of living in the most important city on earth. Everyone in Deanwood was black, working class to working poor, some living in housing projects, others—including my family—in private semi-detached brick homes. We went to school or work in the mornings, came home in the evenings; no one traveled far, for their jobs or anything else, the exceptions mostly being trips “down the country” to families’ even more insular places of origin in Virginia, say, or North Carolina. In December, in school, we put on Christmas programs, because it was assumed, rightly, that everyone was a Christian in our world—for us, the only world there was.

In my memory this sleepiness was at its sweetest in the spring and summer, when the front doors of houses up and down my street were routinely left open to let the breeze in, where, when darkness came, people rocked on metal gliders on their small porches, where sounds were mostly of cicadas whirring and crickets chirping and the occasional car passing with a lazy roar up the street, where the only other movement was of moths floating near the yellow glow of the street lamps.

On the one such night that I’m recalling, in the warm months of 1968, when I was five, the insularity of my world suffered a brief, bizarre jolt. My brother, then nineteen, was beside me on the porch and remembers what I remember, which for nearly half a century was all that kept me from thinking of it as a dream.

We were gazing at the full moon. Then, beside it, part of the sky began to change color, as if an invisible dial was spinning and painting as it went around, until at the end of a second there was a perfect white sphere. Where a moment before there had been one moon, we now saw two.

Small children are, for the most part, rational beings, operating in the world based on their feelings but also on what they’ve learned. When children see things they want, they simply grab them, until they are told, and remember, not to. When pleased that things they’ve said have made others laugh, they’ll say them again, soon filing away the lesson that funny lines almost never work a second time. And when confronted with things that go radically against their learned notions of how the world ought to work, children, like adults, become upset, even frightened.

Seeing what seemed to me the formation of a second moon, I ran screaming into our little house—trying, no doubt incoherently, to talk about what I’d witnessed. I don’t recall that I was upset for very long. If, just beyond the screen door, the world was turning upside down, here in the house everything was as it ought to have been. There was my teenaged older sister, sitting calmly in a chair beside the dining room table; there, behind her, was my mother, applying a black, smoking-hot iron comb to my sister’s head; here was the familiar crackling sound and the old smell of singed hair. Probably the TV was on. I felt safe again, back in the world I knew.

Clearly, though, I’ve never forgotten that other feeling.

If fear—and the accompanying fight or flight—is our first natural response to the unfamiliar, our second has to involve jokes. The most common response when I shared the second-moon story with friends recently was that I’d had too much of my beloved bourbon (never mind that I was five years old at the time I’m recalling). In case you’re having doubts of your own, please know that I have never taken a mind-expanding drug or been diagnosed with a mental illness, and unless you count setting out to become a writer, I’ve never been known for giving way to delusions. (And even as regards that, a good friend told me once long ago that the problem with my becoming a writer was that I’m “not crazy enough.”)

Plus, my story is corroborated by probably the most sober person I know: my big brother. “I was almost twenty, and it unsettled me,” he said recently, “so I can believe you were scared.” His explanation for what we saw? When I’ve mentioned it, every few years or so, his response has been reassuringly consistent if a little light on detail: “They”—whoever “they” are—“were testing chemicals in the sky.” That was all I had to go on until recently, when I finally decided to dig a little deeper on my own.

I am hardly a conspiracy theorist, but I’ve long been intrigued by things that shake up my view of the world around me—specifically, things that awaken my sense that what most of us see makes up very little of what there is, that there’s much more going on around us than we know. Some of the movies I’ve found memorable—Sidney Lumet’s Q & A, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, and, for its Nazi submarine sequence, Woody Allen’s Radio Days—appeal to my sense of a scarcely believable reality beneath the usual veneer, especially when it comes to human activity.

What I witnessed from my porch as a five-year-old, while not related to human interaction, definitely shook my settled view of things, an understanding based in part on the utter predictability of the night sky. The irony is that the world I lived in, the ground I walked on, the moon I saw at night were all formed by events so fantastic, and taking place on so indescribably large a scale, that the average adult mind—let alone the mind of a five-year-old—could not wrap itself around them.

The leading theory of the moon’s formation is that, longer ago than most of us can comprehend, another young planet collided with our own, its core merging with our planet’s, parts of its crust knocked loose along with parts of Earth’s, the loose sections fusing into one with the heat of the impact as they spun away from the two now-joined planets to become our moon. In the summer of 1969, roughly a year after the fantastic thing I saw in the sky, humans went for the first time to this moon. I have very dim memories of watching the coverage on TV, and I still have a drawing of the astronauts I did in whatever summer school I was attending then. What now strikes me as significant about the moon landing—beyond the obvious—is that in light of the theory of the moon’s formation, you could say that the astronauts were not only going to a new world: in the most concrete sense, they were returning home.

The moon, of course, continues to orbit Earth, rotating, as it does so, in such a way that we always see more or less the same side of it; it has been estimated that only fifty-nine percent of the moon is visible, and not all of that is visible at once. One great thing about writing nonfiction is that you are free to explain your metaphors, and these facts about the moon seem to me applicable to all kinds of things. Recently, my younger daughter—the result, you might say, of the collision/merger of her mother and me—spun so far away from us as to enroll at a small Midwestern college. Since she left, she has taken to emailing us videos of herself talking. In one of them, with her black-framed glasses, head wrap, and light brown skin, she looked strikingly like Zadie Smith. But even more striking, for me, was that I was suddenly looking at a woman. This was not the little person holding my hand and toddling beside me en route to Park Slope’s Third Street Playground, the person about whom I knew, or thought I knew, everything; here was a young adult with as great a store of private knowledge as I have, one who shows me certain sides of herself but not others, and if I knew fifty-nine percent of what was going on with her, I would know far too much. (“Don’t you ever ask them why / If they told you, you would cry...”)

Fifty-nine percent, of course, is more than I’ll ever know about what’s going on with the rest of the world, which brings me back to hidden human activity and forward to something I witnessed, not as a five-year-old, but as a young single man living in Harlem. One weekday afternoon in the late 1980s, I was in Midtown Manhattan, on the first floor of the Citicorp building, with its shops and scores of people walking this way and that. I was relaxing with a cup of coffee, thinking and staring at nothing, when two men entered my line of vision from opposite directions, one of them carrying a shopping bag; the men passed each other with no acknowledgment, without breaking stride or turning their heads even slightly—but one of them dropped an object I couldn’t see into the shopping bag of the other man.

To one extent or another, we create for ourselves the lives we envision, which means that each of us lives in a world of his or her imagination. The intrusion of another world into our own—analogous to the process that likely formed the moon—can be unsettling, for good or ill, on a small or large scale: seeing something strange in the sky, witnessing a mysterious handoff, falling in love.

For glimpses into other worlds, we need not turn to the heavens, or even to other people. There is the land of sleep. Except for my brother’s presence on the porch that night in 1968, as I have said, I would have thought I dreamt what I saw; a second moon would not have been out of place in dreams, where one’s own mind becomes a stranger, speaking of incomprehensible things in a language we cannot translate back in the waking world.

Here is Marcel Proust, in In Search of Lost Time, on the subject of dreams:

…our perceptions are so overloaded, each of them blanketed by a superimposed counterpart which doubles its bulk and blinds it to no purpose, that we are unable even to distinguish what is happening in the bewilderment of awakening...that murky obscurity in which reality is no more translucent than in the body of a porcupine, and our all but non-existent perception may perhaps give us an idea of the perception of certain animals...


...in the chariot of sleep, we descend into depths in which memory can no longer keep up with it, and on the brink of which the mind has been obliged to retrace its steps.


...sleep bore him so far away from the world inhabited by memory and thought, through an ether in which he was alone, more than alone, without even the companionship of self-perception, he was outside the range of time and its measurements.

Proust was a man who bent language to his will, whom words served as they served no one else—and even he doesn’t quite nail it. Where Proust falls short, I would be wise not to try, except to say that if describing what happens in certain areas of sleep is beyond the power of the planet’s pre-eminent master of language, then it is because there simply is no human language adequate to the task. Sleep-thought is based on the logic of the alien within ourselves.

All we can do, then, is to try to figure out some of what’s going on in the world of waking life.

Several months ago I talked with my brother about that night in 1968. He said something I didn’t recall his having said before: that prior to our second-moon sighting, there was a mention in the newspaper or on TV or radio about atmospheric tests. Armed with that knowledge, I spent a recent summer afternoon at the main branch of the New York Public Library, searching through the Washington Post database to see where the terms “atmospheric,” “testing,” “chemicals,” and “NASA” appeared in articles published in the spring and summer of 1968, hoping to find a connection to what I witnessed. I came up empty. Disappointed, I went home and, in a spirit of what-have-I-got-to-lose, posted on Facebook a description of my childhood experience and a call for advice on how to solve this mystery. Amid the jokey responses was a suggestion that I contact a man named Derrick Pitts at a science museum called the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia. That turned out to be a very good idea.

I learned from Derrick Pitts, an African-American and the Franklin Institute’s chief astronomer, that during the period of my second-moon sighting, NASA routinely conducted atmospheric tests involving what are called sounding rockets—which carry scientific instruments into space—launched from the Wallops Island Flight Facility, not far from Washington. Next, I sent an email to Wallops, whose news chief, Keith Koehler, informed me that what I saw sounded like a “vapor tracer experiment using a sounding rocket.” According to information on the NASA page to which he sent me a link, vapor tracers are injections into the atmosphere of materials that either luminesce or scatter sunlight in order to reveal... I’m still working on understanding what they reveal.

One vapor, lithium, turns bright red when used at night; another, barium, is used only near sunset or sunrise and shows up as purplish-red. But then there is trimethelaluminum (TMA), which turns white—and which sounds like it might have produced what my brother and I saw. According to the NASA web page, “TMA releases are most often used to study the neutral winds in the lower ionosphere at night at altitudes of 100 miles (160 kilometers) or less.” Searching online for a definition of “neutral winds,” I found a paragraph of impenetrable science-speak; emailing two people in the field, I got back responses that seemed to me like descriptions of two different phenomena. I thought of how my late mother used to respond to unhelpful explanations: Don’t know no more’n I did before.

So I’m left with three problems. The first—that I don’t have a grasp of what neutral winds are—is perhaps not a real problem, since I don’t know that even a definitive, plain-English explanation would benefit me much in the end. The second is that what I read about white TMA vapors, which is probably as good an explanation as I will ever have of what I saw, doesn’t sound exactly like what I saw—the amorphous vapor cloud lacking the crispness of that quickly formed sphere I recall so clearly. So, did I witness something else? Or could it be that forty-eight years have distorted my childhood memory just a little? Do I think that the TMA vapor experiment accounts for what I witnessed? Let’s say I’m fifty-nine percent sure. More, even.

The third problem is that having (maybe, probably, I think) at last solved this mystery, I am presented with the one behind it. Why did I want so much to know the answer? Why have I talked about the subject so much to my wife and daughters that now, when I mention it, they smile, pat my shoulder, and head off to see if that pot of water is boiling yet? Maybe it’s that having crossed the line of fifty—having nearly reached an age my father never saw—has given me the feeling that some mysteries of my life have to be solved soon, if at all; and maybe the question of what I saw when I was five, not critically important on its face, is a stand-in for something else I don’t know about myself—a pretty benign substitute, as these things go. No doubt, having trophy wives, fancy cars, and other cliché trappings of midlife crises are not themselves what aging sufferers seek so much as seeing themselves with the wives and the cars; discovering what they themselves are like under these new and different circumstances; finding out at last, in this big, endlessly mystifying world, who they are. By shaking things up and seeing what remains in place, we hope to discover what in us is permanent, and what we’ve merely never bothered to toss away. If that is the real question, maybe I found part of the answer as a small boy. In a moment when the world around me suddenly seemed as scary, crazy, and unpredictable as any movie, as ill-intentioned as any conspiracy, as unfathomable as any dream, I went running toward my family, and I wanted to describe what I’d seen. At the moment when a long-standing mystery was introduced, a small area of darkness turned to light.

Clifford Thompson is the author of Love for Sale and Other Essays, a memoir called Twin of Blackness, and a novel, Signifying Nothing.

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