I WOKE UP ONE DAY WHEN I WAS SIX wanting to build a spaceship. I imagined a saucer-shaped vehicle, vaguely like a classic UFO, with an engine, a control board, and a windshield for looking at the stars ahead. I could see myself getting into the ship and taking off over the mountains, escaping into the sky, the saucer spinning, my freedom ahead.
I figured with all of the machines and metal and other equipment lying around our property in the California mountains, we had everything it would take to build a spaceship. My parents worked as researchers at a Navy base in the desert, designing and testing missiles, and they bought all kinds of stuff at surplus auctions. I looked at piles of metal sheeting and thought about how I might be able to shape them into a saucer, but I couldn’t figure out exactly how to make a windshield. And I didn’t know what kind of engine a spaceship would need.
My dad saw me looking through the metal and examining some engines and asked me what I was doing.
“Making a spaceship,” I said.
“A spaceship,” he said.
“Yeah – but I don’t know what kind of motor to use,” I said, not wanting to admit that I didn’t know much at all about how to build spaceships. And then he did something remarkable. He sat down with me and a pad of paper in his Quonset hut shed, and we started sketching out plans for the spaceship with a government-issue mechanical pencil. We drew the saucer shape, the windshield, the control panel, the seats. We even sketched out the stars.
“So what kind of engine should I use?” I asked. “How will it work?”
My dad sighed. This was a rare moment of talking with him. Usually he was angry by noon, drunk by mid-afternoon, and passed out by evening. The spaceship project seemed to interest him, though.
“There are lots of things that go into building a spaceship that would fly,” he said. “I’m not sure we really have the right equipment.”
He looked at me with his dark eyes.
“We’d need rocket-powered thrusters,” he said. “And we’d need to figure out how to do that with the saucer shape. That doesn’t lend itself very well to flight, actually.”
I nodded, trying to make sense of what he was trying to say, what he couldn’t say.
“So how do UFOs do it?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Why don’t you work on it? I have some other things to do, but you go ahead. See what you can come up with.”
His other things to do, I knew, involved getting a shot of Christian Brothers brandy, and then another. Whatever. I could do this myself. I walked around our property studying equipment, rusting hulks of engines, pallets full of wire, old office chairs. For a while, it seemed the project might still work. In the morning light with my dad’s diagrams, anything had seemed possible. But as morning turned inexorably into afternoon, everything seemed futile. I couldn’t even figure out the basics, let alone where I’d get rocket thrusters.
Eventually, I pulled the heavy sheets of metal I’d taken from a pallet back to where they belonged and went in for dinner.
“How’s the spaceship project going?” my dad asked, over a slice of ham and piles of macaroni and cheese and canned green beans. His voice was loose, his hair shaggy, his overalls stained with oil.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Still working on it.”
“I think you’re onto something,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, looking down at my plate, imagining my spaceship twirling up over pine-covered mountains, and fighting back whatever tears space explorers cry when they finally lose sight of the curl of earth below.