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October 2008 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

I wanted to give my visitors here -- and not just those few happy fanatics who’ve turned the Dan Simmons Forum into a treehouse club for some rather interesting discussions – a combination Halloween and Election Day present. So I decided to write a piece of fiction for you.

This will be only my second piece of fiction posted here under the Message from Dan rubric. (The first one, “A Time Traveler’s Tale” posted in April, 2006, was received, some of you may remember, with almost universally positive acclaim and has become a warmly beloved classic of its kind, often mentioned in the same breath as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and Good Night, Moon.)

Some of you who read a wide variety of my novels will notice that the some of the “kids from Elm Haven” have shown up as adults in several of my other novels, usually in a brief cameo role but several times as central figures. I can’t seem to get rid of these characters. (I’ve heard of this happening to other authors, but, as we men tend to say, I never thought it would happen to me.) I remember, years ago, when Kurt Vonnegut stepped into one of his novels, gathered all of his frequently returning characters around him, and set them free – telling them that they had their own lives now and never to return. (It didn’t quite work, as I remember; some of those characters still popped up in his future fiction.)

This is not a setting-characters-free tale, but it was interesting to me to discover how alive these fictional characters – and they are purely fictional, however much I may have borrowed some general names from my childhood – first seen in my novel Summer of Night continue to be for me. Even, as Mark Twain would say, the dead ones.

But this short story grew longer than I’d imagined it would (my first novel, Song of Kali, was a short story I kept cutting back like kudzu until I surrendered and allowed it to become a novel, as was one of my longest novels, Carrion Comfort. I really think that tales and their characters should tell a writer how long they have to be before he starts work on them. Even writers have other things they might have to be doing.)

So due to the length of this Halloween-Election Day Gift to you, I’ve decided to post this long first half now and finish the story later for posting as the next Message on or before Nov. 1 (but certainly before Election Day.)

So, as a certain Rod Serling would have said (and which these kids would have heard this very night of Friday, October 21, 1960, if they weren’t trying to watch the presidential debates on ABC instead of Serling’s show on CBS) – submitted for your approval, a tale of five boys, two candidates, one tired old town, and a future which, for all of us, holds more twists and turns than we can imagine.

Watching the Presidential Debates in Elm Haven – Part I

On October 21, 1960, a twelve-year-old kid named Dale Stewart invited a few of his friends to come over to his house while his parents were gone to watch the fourth and final presidential debate between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

2The Stewart family’s house was in Elm Haven, Illinois, a tiny town only twenty-some miles west of Peoria along State Highway 151.( Interstate 74, which would bypass and effectively kill Elm Haven’t future, had not yet been completed.) The signs at each end of Elm Haven along the narrow state highway – the Main Street ran for a total of four blocks -- read ELM HAVEN – POP. 650 – SPEED ELECTRICALLY TIMED

The kids who came over to Dale’s house to watch the presidential debates that October night included twelve-year-old Mike O’Rourke, who -- because of a learning disability (a concept and term that no one then used, so Mike’s problems learning how to read were chalked up to stupidity despite the fact that he was extremely intelligent) and his retention in fourth grade, was now a year behind Dale in school. Mike went not to seventh grade with the rest of his former class at the new consolidated junior high between Elm Haven and Princeville, but to sixth grade in nearby Oak Hill.

Elm Haven kids were being bussed either to Oak Hill Elementary or the consolidated junior high this autumn because their local school, Elm Haven’s own Old Central – which had been just across the street from Dale’s house -- had burned down that summer.

Mike O’Rourke was thin, graceful, and a natural athlete. He had a dazzling smile and startlingly bright gray eyes under lashes so long that the other boys sometimes made fun of him, especially since he was the only boy in a family that had four girls. Mike’s hair was cropped too short to part or comb and it was only much later, in his later teenaged years when he let it grow out, that he realized that his hair was extremely curly.

The second kid who came that night was Dale’s neighbor, eleven-year-old Kevin Grumbacher. Kevin, a tall, thin, relatively quiet boy with a buzz cut clipped close on both sides of his head and standing up on top like toothbrush bristles, was also in sixth grade, a year behind Dale (but legitimately, because he was nine months younger than Dale and Mike and had entered kindergarten a year late.)

The third kid was twelve-year-old Jim Harlen, who was in Dale’s class and had gone on to the new consolidated junior high that fall with him. Jim Harlen, who lived with only his mother and who was the only kid with divorced parents that the boys knew, was one of those males who was always going to be known by his last name, and so he was this evening when the others said, “Hey, Harlen” when he showed up.

Also there that Friday night was Dale’s younger brother Lawrence (“Don’t-Call-Me-Larry”) who had not yet turned ten and had just entered fifth grade. Lawrence would much rather have been watching his regular Friday-night shows like “Walt Disney Presents” on Channel 19 or “Rawhide” on Channel 31 or even that weird “77 Sunset Strip” show where the guy who parked cars was always combing his greasy hair, or one of Lawrence’s favorite new shows here on Ch. 19 where the stupid debate thing was tonight, “The Flintstones,” or Dale’s new Friday-night favorite that had premiered on Channel 31 that fall, a talky thing about two guys driving around in a sportscar called “route 66,” or – if they got to stay up late until nine o’clock – “The Twilight Zone.”

Except, if Lawrence was honest with himself, after this summer that they’d all just got through, he really didn’t like to watch scary things like “The Twilight Zone” any more. Lawrence, like all the other boys, had bad dreams.

Both Lawrence and Dale sported terrible haircuts – their father cut their hair to save money and had never worked out the fine (or gross, for that matter) aspects of power clippers use, so both boys had near-bald patches here and there, including some actual cuts and scars visible – but Lawrence stuck to crew cuts while his older brother Dale had hair just long enough on top to fall over his forehead in unmaneagable bangs that he hated. The brothers fought a lot and Dale would tease Lawrence mercilessly, but they were good friends and usually played well together – especially on imaginative things such as with their hundreds of toy soldiers and planes and tanks, or the long narratives where they played cowboys or soldiers themselves with their pistols and Cadet Rifles -- and Dale did nothing with the other older guys where he wouldn’t let the younger Lawrence tag along.

None of them, except Dale Stewart (and Kevin Grumbacher to a much lesser degree), had any interest in the 1960 presidential election or the TV debates, but Dale’s and Lawrence’s parents weren’t home that evening – Dale’s dad was traveling on business, which he did a lot, and his mother was with her bowling league down at Ewalt’s Recreation Center (five lanes in the basement, live pin boys, all the town bullies and punks, who reset the pins and howled at the ladies when they bowled) -- so the guys took the opportunity to get out of their houses after dark and hang out together. In the summer they used Mike O’Rourke’s old chickenhouse behind his real house as their club, but it was getting quite cold in this third week in October and there were no lights in the chickenhouse.
None of them much liked going out after dark these days, and it was getting dark earlier and earlier each evening -- now even before their parents were finished watching Douglas Edward with the News or the Huntley-Brinkley Report. All of them especially avoided the weirdly empty but still elm-tree-lined city block across from Dale’s and Lawrence’s house where Old Central had been. The center of the rising mound of high ground where the huge, old-fashioned school had been was now just a gravel rectangle since even the burned basement had been filled in, although the town had kept the playground equipment on the south side.

Almost none of the kids in town played there though, not even on the school ball diamond which still remained. These five boys wouldn’t cross that square in the daylight and Mike and Harlen – and even Kevin from just next door – had hurried to Dale’s house in the dark this night, shooting anxious glances at the empty, treelined block across the street.

Dale had gotten permission to offer everyone soda pop and potato chips (and later, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies as a treat) – he’d promised not to get crumbs all over the furniture - -and he set the chips and pop out on TV trays and coffee table now while the boys sprawled to watch the TV. Oddly – or perhaps characteristically – it was Harlen who tossed himself into Dale’s dad’s almost sacred space of the one big Barca Lounger, kicking it back like he belonged in such a chair. Dale sat, a bit uncomfortably, in the smaller upholstered chair near the opening to the dining room where his mom always sat. Kevin sat rather upright and properly – his folks were strict – on the sprung sofa where Dale and Lawrence usually sprawled when they were allowed to watch TV, while Mike and Lawrence just sat cross-legged on the floor, next to the stained old coffee table where the potato chips were in a big, red plastic bowl.

The television was a 19-inch Sylvania Halo Light – a proper piece of furniture about the size and weight of a small bank vault, with elaborately carved wooden doors that Dale’s mother wanted kept shut when the TV was not in use. She used lemon-smelling spray stuff on the big Sylvania every other day to keep the dust off. It was called a Halo Light because the theory in the early days of television – Dale’s and Lawrence’s dad had bought the thing years before when a TV was a pure luxury item and not much was on the two channels it could receive except wrestling – was that sitting in a darkened room watching a lighted television screen would ruin people’s (especially kids’) eyes. So the Sylvania Halo Light had a halo . . . a broad, internally lighted band around the screen itself, making the actual TV image seem even smaller than it was.

What had fascinated Dale about that dully glowing halo band for the last four years was a small insect that had crawled into the theoretically sealed space and had died on the lower right corner of the halo. Even Dale’s dad, who was great with anything mechanical or electrical, couldn’t get that bug’s carcass out of there without taking out all of the vacuum tubes and single, big, heavy cathode-ray tube of the Sylvania and – as his dad said – rather than risking dropping that tube and setting off a huge implosion, he’s just let the bug stay there and rot away.

Only it didn’t rot away. That little dead tan-gray bug shape had stayed there for the last four years like some sort of Egyptian bug mummy and it would stay there until the Sylvania Halo Light was finally replaced some six years later. Sometimes, if the TV show was especially dull, Dale found himself staring at the dead bug for the whole thirty minutes or hour rather than the show. He was amazed one night, as the brothers talked from one bed to another in their dark room, to find out that Lawrence did the same thing.

It was a few minutes until the presidential debate show – Dale had to explain to Lawrence and Mike what a debate was – would start, so the boys talked about Halloween.

“I think we’re too old to go out trick or treating this year,” said Kevin Grumbacher.

The other four howled and hooted him down. They’d all had that sneaking, sinking feeling that they were too old to be going door to door in Halloween costumes, begging for treats, but none of them wanted to admit it, even to himself.

“I’m not too old,” Lawrence said smugly. “I got a bunch of years still while I can do it while you guys are sitting at home.”

“Shut up, Larry,” said Dale.

“Don’t call me . . .” began Lawrence.

“Shut up, Larry!” shouted all four of the others in unison and laughed and then laughed again when Lawrence’s face grew bright red. He had a low boiling point and they all loved to bring him to it.

“What are you guys going as?” asked Mike.

“I’m going as a soldier,” said Dale.

Harlen made a rude noise. “You went as a soldier last year, dipstick.”

Dale shrugged. “My dad’s Eisenhower jacket fits me perfectly and I like carrying the bolt-action Cadet Rifle.”

The others nodded. It wasn’t a real rifle, of course, just a toy, but it was heavy and two-thirds the size of a real army rifle, all real wood and metal and with an actual, working bolt-action, and they understood why Dale would want to have it with him out after dark on Halloween night. Especially this year.

“I’m going as an astronaut,” said Kevin. He’d worn his astronaut costume to the school’s Halloween Parade for two years running – it must have been getting pretty small on him by then since he’d grown more than any of the others in the past year – and Harlen loudly pointed all that out.

“I don’t think Oak Hill has a Halloween Parade,” Kevin said softly. “Just dumb parties in some of the classrooms. And you guys . . .” He pointed to Harlen and Dale. “ . . . won’t see me in costume at school anyway.”

This silenced them for a minute – this knowledge that there’d never be another Old Central School Halloween Parade around the treelined block now black-dark and empty just across the street.

Before Mike O’Rourke could say what costume he would use, Dale said, “Lawrence, go show ‘em what you’re dressing up as this year. You have time. The debate thing isn’t on for another seven minutes.”

“Yeah?” said Lawrence, brightening. “You want me to get it all on?”

“Yeah,” said Dale. “Put it all on.”

Lawrence banged and clattered up the uncovered wooden stairs to the second floor, moving so fast that he had to use his hands.

“This is so stupid,” said Dale. “You know our wiffle football that broke . . .”

You broke it,” said Harlen. “Turd-bird.”

Dale glared the smaller boy down. “Anyway, the wiffle football broke right in half – two big, like, cones or whatever and . . . well, just wait.”

Lawrence came down before the debate began. He was wearing one of his mother’s oldest dresses – she’d been intending to throw it out – and one of her unused black hats with a veil and moderately high-heeled shoes that echoed ahead of him down the stairs and threatened to pitch him forward with each step. Lawrence had gotten into the bathroom that only his parents used upstairs and now sported bright rouge on each cheek, weird black stuff around his eyes, and crimson lipstick that had blobbed off his lips onto his cheeks and chin. He was carrying one of his mom’s old purses.

But it was the two halves of the broken wiffle football that made the costume complete. Lawrence had stuffed the rigid plastic cones into the upper half of the dress so he bulged out about eight inches there.

All four of the other boys howled – even Dale, who’d seen Lawrence in this ridiculous get-up twice before, encouraging his little brother to wear it on Halloween both times – and Lawrence laughed with them until Harlen shouted, “You are such a fag, Larry. The other kids will finally know you are such a fruity fag. I love it!”

Lawrence quit laughing and said, “What’s a fag? What’s a fruity fag?”

“Never mind,” said Dale, glowering at Harlen again and suddenly feeling sad for some reason. “Go get that stuff off and put it back in Mom and Dad’s closet and scrub your face and get back down here. They’re ready to begin the show.”

“What’s a fruity fag?” demanded Lawrence, advancing on Harlen with balled-up fists. Lawrence was the smallest of them, but in most ways he was the fiercest and most fearless.

You are, fruity fag,” laughed Harlen.

Dale stood and moved between them. “It’s a funny costume, Lawrence, it’s gonna be a great costume and the people answering the door will die laughing at your wiffle-boobies, but you don’t want to wear that stuff while we watch the show. Go on upstairs and get back in your jeans and scrub your face and I’ll put the chocolate chip cookies out like Mom said I could.”

Lawrence glared at Jim Harlen but kicked off the high heels and carried them upstairs with him.

The fuzzy, streaked and black-and-white image in the center of the Sylvania Halo Light changed to some stupid news logo and the show began.


1“I am Quincy Howe of CB . . . of ABC News . . . saying good evening from New York where the two major candidates for president of the United States are about to engage in their fourth radio-television discussion of the present campaign. Tonight these men will confine the discussion to foreign policy. Good evening, Vice President Nixon.”

“Good evening, Mr. Howe.”

“And good evening, Senator Kennedy.”

“Good evening, Mr. Howe.”

“That guy sounds weird,” said Lawrence. “He talks funny.”

“He’s sort of Irish,” Mike O’Rourke said. “From Boston, I think.”

“Yeah,” said Dale who’d been following election things for much of that impossible year, despite the events of that impossible year. “He’s a senator from there. Massachusetts, I mean.”

“My old lady . . .” began Jim Harlen. He was the only one of the five boys who spoke of his mother in such terms. “My old lady says that if Kennedy gets elected president, he’ll be taking orders from the pope in Rome as soon as he gets to Washington and the whole country’ll have to turn into Catholics or get shot or something.”

Mike O’Rourke, an altar boy who served Mass with the new priest at St. Malachy’s seven mornings a week and twice on Sunday, put down his glass of Pepsi and said, “Harlen, you may be stupid enough to believe something like that, but I can’t believe that a grownup person like your mother could be.”

Harlen grinned and gave Mike the finger.

“Shut up, would you?” said Dale.

“As they did in their first meeting, both men will make opening statements of about eight minutes each and closing statements of equal time running three to five minutes each,” the announcer on the TV was saying.

Jesus Christ,” said Harlen, throwing himself backward on the couch and opening his arms in Dale’s direction in a crucifixion pose. “Do you really want us to sit here and watch this crapola? It’d put Duane McBride deeper asleep.”

The other four boys, even Lawrence, winced and recoiled as if they’d been slapped. Duane McBride had been their friend, Dale’s friend especially, a member of the Bike Patrol (even though he hadn’t ridden a bike), who’d been killed out on his farm that summer. They hadn’t mentioned Duane much in the two and a half months since his death, and never like this.

Dale Stewart’s face grew as red as his little brother Lawrence’s had earlier. Duane had been his close – in many ways unique – friend. “Harlen,” said Dale through clenched jaws, “if you say anything like that again, I’m going to kick your ass and then throw you out the door.”

“Oh, yeah, you and whose army, Dale Stupid?” But Jim Harlen’s voice was not as cocksure as it usually was. He knew he’d crossed the line.

“Reversing the order in their first meeting,” the weasely-looking reporter guy on TV who didn’t know what network he worked for was saying, “Senator Kennedy will make the second opening statement and the first closing statement. For the first opening statement, here is Vice President Nixon.”

“Mr. Howe, Senator Kennedy, my fellow Americans,” said one of the candidates, an even more weasely looking guy, the kids thought, with a rumpled suit and low black eyebrows and dark cheeks that made him look like he hadn’t shaved that day. He had a weird way of talking, as if he had a mouthful of prune pits or something and was trying to hide the fact. “Since this campaign began, I have had a very rare privilege. I have traveled to forty-eight of the fifty states and in my travels I have learned what the people of the United States are thinking about . . .”

Kevin said, “I was rooting for Senator Johnson to be the Democratic nominee.”

Dale almost snorted his Pepsi he was so surprised. He hadn’t discussed the political stuff with Kev through the spring or summer or fall and Dale had thought that he was the only kid in town interested in it. “Senator Johnson?” he managed.

“Yeah, Lyndon Johnson from Texas,” said Kevin.

5“I know who Johnson is,” said Dale as Vice President Nixon droned on through the TV speaker. “He wanted to be president and ran but came in second or whatever, but Kennedy chose him as his running mate. Why did you want Johnson?”

“Last winter, in Our Weekly Reader,” said Kevin, sipping his own soft drink, “they had stuff about all the candidates, and only Senator Johnson wanted to go ahead and create a space program – men going into space – to beat the Russians. So I wanted him to win.”

Men Into Space!” shouted Jim Harlen. “Starring William Lundigan! Channel thirty-five, Wednesday night at seven-thirty. Dale Stupid’s favorite show.” But the show had not been on CBS’s line-up this fall.

“Mine, too,” said Kevin. “I think we should build a space station and all that stuff, just like Willy Ley said, and Johnson wanted to do that. I don’t know about Kennedy or Nixon. Mom says they haven’t talked about it during the first three debates.”

“Kennedy doesn’t want to go into space,” says Harlen. “He wants to go to mackeral-snapper Heaven, behind the pope, and leave all of us real Christians behind him.”

“Shut up, Harlen,” said Mike O’Rourke. “You haven’t been in a church, any church, in your whole grubby life. You wouldn’t know a real Christian if one bit you on the ass.”

“Well, then,” sneered Harlen, swinging his blue-jeaned butt around on the Barca Lounger and slapping it invitingly, “bite me, O’Rourke.”

“Watch the language guys,” said Dale, jerking his head in Lawrence’s direction. “And my mom might walk in at any time.”

On TV, Kennedy was beginning his opening statement.

“Mr. Howe, Mr. Vice President. First . . . uh . . . let me again try to correct the record on the matter of Quemoy and Mastsu . . .”

“Who in the hell are Queer Moy and Matt Sue?” drawled Harlen.

“What,” said Dale. “They’re islands. The third debate eight days ago seemed to be all about Quemoy and Matsu. I looked them up in an atlas in the consolidated school’s library. They’re between China and Formosa.”

“Who the hell is Four Mouses?” Harlen drawled again, kicking further back in Dale’s father’s sacred chair and almost spilling his pop on the carpet.

“Shut up, Harlen,” Mike said softly.


Of all the boys there that night, it might be argued that Kevin Grumbacher’s life will be the least directly affected by politics. But event that argument might be debated.

Kevin, who knows even at age eleven that his nearsightedness would prevent him from becoming an astronaut (although he has hopes of being a space-going scientist once that large torus of a space station, holding hundreds of scientists from all over the world, will be built in high earth orbit), still dreams of being part of any space program America might create. Thus it is only eight months later, on May 25, 1961, when President Kennedy announces before a joint session of congress that America should send a man to the moon, that Kevin Grumbacher considers it the most important day of his life.

Dale Stewart, already assuming the role of a cynic, will point out to Kevin that Kennedy came up with the man-to-the-moon idea mostly because it had been such a lousy first few months in office for the young American president – first Russia’s Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to orbit the earth on April 12 and then the terrible Bay of Pigs fiasco starting a few days later – but Kevin had answered simply and truthfully, “I don’t care why he proposed  it. Just that he did.”

Unknown to any of the other kids in Elm Haven, Kevin’s hero is Robert Hutchings Goddard – the father of American (and German and Soviet, for that matter) rocketry – and Kevin knows that when Goddard was sixteen, he’d read H.G. Wells’s serialized War of the Worlds and had been changed forever. The next year, when he was seventeen, while high in the branches of a cherry tree he’d climbed, the young Goddard decided that he would devote the rest of his life to building a spacecraft that could travel to Mars.

Goddard had climbed that tree on Oct. 19, 1899, and for the rest of his life, the early rocket scientist would secretly celebrate that date as “Anniversary Day” – a private commemoration of the inspiration that had changed his life forever.

For Kevin Grumbacher, May 25 and President Kennedy’s “We shall go to the moon in this decade . . .” will be his Anniversary Day.

Kevin’s father owned and drove his own shining tanker truck for milk delivery, but the Grumbachers had more wealth – relatively speaking – than most families in Elm Haven. (The other kids noticed this only in the odd fact that the Grumbachers had torn down the ancient house next to Dale’s and Lawerence’s family’s home when they were ready to live in town and built on that lot a low, new ranch house of a style unique in that old section of Elm Haven.) So Kevin’s parents could afford to send him to college, but his strength in math and geometry and science – not noticed by any teacher until Kevin was in his last year of the Creve Ceouer County consolidated high school – also will help him earn a scholarship to Purdue University, in Indiana.

Kevin studies aerospace science and engineering at Purdue, focusing his studies on spacecraft orbital mechanics. It pleases him somewhat that only a few years previously, the leading student in that field at Purdue – he had written his thesis on theoretical orbital rendezvous techniques – was a guy named Buzz Aldrin.

On April 13 of 1971, Kevin will be an engineering intern with the Grumann Aerospace company out of Bethpage, New York, working with NASA at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, Texas, when the Apollo 13 near-disaster again changes his life.

Grumman had designed the LM – the Lunar Module that had quickly become a lifeboat for astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert after their Command Module had been crippled by an oxygen tank that had overheated and exploded. As soon as the CM’s oxygen supply was lost, NASA and Grumman engineers knew that the LM’s lithium hydroxide canisters, meant to scrub the lunar module’s air clean of the carbon dioxide the men were exhaling, simply weren’t up to the job for the time it would take to bring the men all the way back to Earth.

The CM had backup lithium hydroxide canisters, Kevin’s engineering supervisors and the NASA engineers knew, but the CM canisters were square and the openings of LM’s CO2 scrubbers were round.

Kevin will be in Mission Control when the radio announcement of the explosion aboard Apollo 13 first comes in and he will always smile when someone thinks that the famous line from the spacecraft, as shown in the Ron Howard movie “Apollo 13” (which Kevin will own and watch dozens of times over the years) is “Houston, we have a problem . . .”. In truth, it was Jack Swigert, the CM pilot on the radio and what he said – and what Kevin will hear that night – is “Houston, we’ve had a problem . . .”

The engineers went to work on the looming CO2 crisis even before the astronauts succeeded in stabilizing the tumbling CM-LM stack, and for the next two days, Kevin will work alongside a NASA crew systems’ division engineer named Ed Smylie as Smylie’s team rushed –but  never once showed panic or agitation as the movie makers’ liked to suggest – in “driving that square peg into a round hole.”

Smylie and his men will propose a workable solution to retrofit the canisters in the first ninety minutes of the two-day effort, but Kevin will always remember Ed Smylie turning to him and saying, “This retrofit isn’t worth a damn unless those guys have the stuff we need already sitting in one of those two spacecraft. For instance, does anyone here know if they have duct tape?”

It was a serious question but several of the engineers around Kevin and Ed Smylie will laugh. “How could they go into space without duct tape?” one of the men says. “Hell, I can’t even go work on my gutters without duct tape.”

It turns out that Apollo 13 did have duct tape aboard, to be used on such common spaceflight housekeeping tasks as cleaning filters and taping bags of food to heating lamps.

“Okay,” a smiling Ed Smylie had said when that word got back to the engineering team meeting in their windowless basement office, “we’re home free. Now it’s just a matter of building a mock-up of this thing – making sure we use only what those three guys have with them – and then writing up a check-list to be radioed up to them that’s clear enough to allow them to build it up there in the dark and cold.”

And, two days later, that checklist was radioed up and within minutes the CO2 levels within the mated spacecraft began to fall.

At the end of those three days, feeling drunk and exhilarated due to lack of sleep, Kevin will decide that he wants to work for NASA, not one of the space agency’s subcontractors like Grumman, although Grumman will earn an eternal place in Kev’s heart when, after the three Apollo astronauts are safely recovered and aboard the aircraft carrier, the Grumman corporation will issue an invoice to North American Rockwell (who designed and built the Apollo Command Module) for a “towing fee” of $312,421.24. Rockwell will politely refuse the bill, pointing out that their command module had towed Grumman’s LM to the moon on three previous Apollo missions without billing them for it.

Kevin’s fifteen years with NASA will be fulfilling and exciting ones, even though many of the older engineers responsible for the Mercury and Gemini programs and the moon landings will leave soon after the Apollo program fizzles out, cancelling the last two scheduled lunar landings,  in the early seventies. The way Kevin will see it through the ‘70’s, they still have the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and Skylab to keep them busy until the STS – Space Transportation System, the “space shuttle” to laymen – comes online.

The development and early flights of the shuttle will be Kevin’s baby and by the end of his time at NASA, in January of 1986, he will, at the relatively tender age of 37, be fourth-engineer-from-the-top for NASA in JSC’s MOCR – that is, the Johnson Space Center in Houston’s Mission Operations Control Room.

And then, on January 28, 1986, at 11:39 a.m. EST – 10:39 a.m. where Kevin will be in the MOCR at Houston – Mission STS-51-L, the Challenger spacecraft carrying Christa McCauliffe, the so-called Teacher-in-Space, and six other crewmembers, including Kevin Grumbacher’s friend Mike Smith – will disintegrate some seventy-three seconds after its launch from Cape Canaveral.

Kevin’s love affair with manned spaceflight will die that January day at 10:39 a.m. his time, along with the seven astronauts. Three of those astronauts, including the teacher, will die almost instantly when the external fuel tank disintegrates under violent dynamic pressures just a few feet from where the three are lying in their couches on the lower deck of the shuttle, the three then being incinerated in the localized combustion of propellant that follows (dramatic to see even from scores of miles away, but not a true detonation), but  the other four astronauts, including Pilot Smith,, in the crew compartment that is thrown free but which remains intact when the shuttle stack disintegrates, will most probably die only after a terrible two-minute, forty-five second fall to the ocean below. The crew compartment and any surviving crewmembers strikes the ocean at a little over 200 g’s.

Kevin Grumbacher will not be not found culpable in any way in either the internal NASA investigation of the disaster or during the later congressionally mandated Rogers Commission Investigation. Kevin was below the organizational decision level where he could have been guilty of any sort of malfeasance.

But although Kevin will not resign from NASA until 1990, after the 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program following the destruction of Challenger and the successful resumption of STS launches, he will  become more and more convinced of his own culpability. Kevin had watched  the Monday night, Jan. 27, night-before-the-launch go/no-go teleconference between Morton Thiokol people who were very nervous about the unprecedented cold conditions at the Cape – specifically  the effect those conditions would have  on the O-rings in the SRBs, solid rocket boosters, that Morton Thiokol manufacture -- and the NASA and other spaceflight managers and engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

Kevin had been silent during that long teleconference since the few JSC managers and engineers allowed to tap into the teleconference had no role in the discussion, but he had found himself – as an engineer – agreeing completely with the concern being expressed by Roger Boisjoly and other Thiokol engineers, even while he – Kevin – also found himself agreeing with the “let’s go anyway” position of the NASA Marshall guys, including Joe Kilminster and Laurence Mulloy. There had been pre-launch worries before that hovered just above or beneath the Launch Commit Criteria’s guidelines,  but the Orbiter had always done all right. Besides, Kevin knew that night of Jan. 27, this STS-51-L mission was already far behind schedule – the “5” in the “51” mean that it should have been launched months earlier, in 1985 -- and with the teacher aboard, there was more media and public spotlight on this mission than on any in years.

President Reagan wanted to mention the Teacher in Space during his State of the Union Address the next night, the night of the launch. Besides, now that NASA had declared the Space Transportation System operational and open to civilians, there was a glut of junket-seekers lined up and waiting to go, including a Saudi prince, Senator Jake Garn and Congressman Bill Nelson (both of whom oversaw NASA appropriations), and even a journalist to fly on the next Challenger mission after this one.

So they went.

But what will haunt Kevin in that 32-month flight hiatus and for many years afterwards, is the question – Did any of the crew survive that 2 minute 45-second  fall to the ocean?

The crew module and crew members’ remains were recovered from the bottom of the ocean, of course, but the evidence there was still open to interpretation. The module had remained intact until its 200-g instantaneous-deceleration impact with the ocean and three of the four PEAPS – Personal Egress Air Packs, tiny oxygen cylinders activated in case of oxygen loss in the compartment – had been activated. Mike Smith’s PEAP had been mounted on the back of his seat – he couldn’t activate it on his own – and yet it had been activated, after the explosion, by astronaut Ellison Onizuka who sat behind him on the flight deck. The amount of the PEAP’s oxygen used up was two minutes and forty-five seconds.

Kevin will meet one of the experts testifying before the Rogers Commission – an NTSB accident reconstruction expert and explosion-survival expert physicist named Darwin Minor – and Minor will say to him, “The human body is made up mostly of jelly. It can survive explosive shockwaves that would snap the strongest steel. In my opinion – and I hate saying it – it was that three hundred thirty-four kilometer-per-hour to zero k/h in zero-seconds deceleration with its 200-g’s at the end of the long fall that killed them.”

And it will be the maverick theoretical physicist on the commission, Richard Feynman, who will put the culpability for the disaster in simple terms that Kevin Grumbacher will not only understand, but agree with completely . . . since he was there.

Feynman said –

“I read all of these reviews and they agonize whether they can go even though they had some blow-by in the seal or they had a cracked blade in the pump of one of the engines, whether they can go the next time or this time, and they decide yes. Then it flies and nothing happens.

“Then it is suggested, therefore, that that risk is no longer so high. For the next flight we can lower our standards a little bit because we got away with it last time . . . It is a kind of Russian roulette.”

Kevin will think of it – and his contribution to it through the 1980’s – more as a habit of running yellow lights at intersections. Everytime NASA did it – everytime he helped them do it – and they got away with it, the safer it felt to do it again.

Kevin leaves NASA in 1990 and will return to Illinois with his wife and kids, buying a small farm in the picturesque hills near Jubilee College State Park not very far from Elm Haven. His father, who had never retired, will die that year and Kevin will buy the container truck from his mother and continue the business of delivering milk from dairies within a sixty-mile radius. Kevin and his family live fairly comfortably on money made from investments – including major stock holdings in a company that produces duct tape.

When, in February of 2003, space shuttle Columbia disintegrates over Texas during reentry, again killing all seven crewmembers, the only thing the 54-year-old Kevin will say to his eight-year-old grandson watching the video instant replay on television is, “It was the ice. They’ll find out it was the ice.”

Other than a single visit in 2005 (on the 35th anniversary of Apollo 13) to a ceremony sponsored by the GlobalSpec corporation to honor Ed Smylie and a few other engineers involved in the 1970 fix of the  lithium hydroxide canister problem, Kevin will never see any of his former NASA or aerospace colleagues again.


The presidential debate on TV had gone to reporters Frank Singiser, John Edwards, Walter Cronkite, and John Chancellor asking questions of the candidates.4

Kennedy was saying something after Nixon responded to Singiser’s question about Communist governments in the western hemisphere – “Mr. Nixon uh . . . shows himself info . . . misinformed. He – ah – he – uh – he surely must be aware that . . .uh . . .”

“Kennedy stutters a lot, don’t he?” said Harlen. “Sort of like Cordie Cook’s fat brother before he disappeared.”

“He’s not stuttering,” said Mike O’Rourke. “He’s thinking. Some people do that before they talk, you know, Harlen.”

Lawrence jumps up and clicks the heavy dial from the ABC Channel 19 to CBS Channel 31. The new show, route 66, is on. Tod and Buz are standing by their Corvette talking to a woman.

“I wonder what color that Corvette is,” said Kevin. It is, of course, gray on the black and white screen.

“Stupid, it’s red,” said Harlen. “All Corvettes are red.”

“I don’t think so,” said Mike O’Rourke. “I think a red Corvette would look darker than that one does.”

“That Tod faggot has to be rich to be able to afford a Corvette,” said Harlen.

“No,” said Dale. “I watched the first episode. He was rich, but his dad died and his dad’s company lost all its money and all Tod got was the Corvette. Not a cent more.”

“Well, he’s still a faggot,” said Harlen. “They both are. That’s why the two of them are always traveling around together and always touching each other and . . .”

“Shut up, Harlen,” said Dale. “I really mean it. Lawrence, turn back to the debates.”

“What’s a faggot?” Lawerence asked. “Is that the same as a fag?”

“Just turn the channel back,” ordered Dale. “When the debate’s over, we’ll see what else is on.”

“I have to tell Larry what a faggot is . . .” began Harlen with a smirk.

Dale stood. “One more word, Harlen – I mean it – and you’ll walk home in the dark.”

Harlen’s face sobered instantly. “Hey, you said your mom would drive me home after . . .”

“I’ll throw you out now and tell her you wanted to walk home,” said Dale. “I mean it. Just shut up and let us watch the show.”

Harlen shrugged and smirked again but he was visibly shaken at the idea of walking home in the dark. “Yeah, yeah . . . I just meant I live way up at the other end of town and I woulda ridden my bike if you hadn’t said your mom would . . .”

“Turn the channel, Lawrence,” said Dale.

Back on ABC, another weasely guy with a mustache, some reporter named Cronkite, was asking Nixon, “Mr. Vice President, Senator Fullbright and now tonight, Senator Kennedy, maintain that the Administration is suppressing a report by the United States Information Agency that shows a decline in United States prestige overseas. Are you aware of such a report, and if you are aware of the existence of such a report, should not that report, because of the great importance this issue has been given in this campaign, be released to the public?”

The candidate named Nixon flashed a sort of wide, fake smile that Dale associated with his elderly Uncle Henry after Uncle Henry had gotten dentures, and said, “Mr. Cronkite, I naturally am aware of it, because I, of course, pay attention to everything Senator Kennedy says, as well as Senator Fullbright. Now, in this connection I want to point out that the facts simply are not as stated . . .”

Mike O’Rourke shook his head. “Man, I’m glad I’m not a grown-up who has to vote on which of these guys should be president. I don’t how grown-ups decide such things. That’s gotta be an important decision.”

Dale wished his friend Duane McBride were still alive.

He hadn’t had much time to talk about political stuff with Duane during the summer, and Duane was dead by the time the two parties chose their candidates at their conventions, but one weekend in May, before school had let out, Dale had been out at Uncle Henry’s and Aunt Lena’s farm on a Saturday and had walked the extra mile or so down to the McBride farm. Dale didn’t really like going to the McBride place since Duane’s father – his mother had died when Duane was born – was usually drunk and scary, but Duane had told him that his father would be away all that weekend.

Duane was often alone for days, or sometimes weeks, with no one but his Uncle Art to look in on him from time to time. Duane never seemed to mind it.

This Saturday in May Dale and Duane and Duane’s ancient collie Wittgenstein had hiked in the strip of woods down by the creek at the back of the McBride property, then come back along the edge of the fields – they were still fairly newly planted and Mr. McBride, even though he didn’t farm his own place, wouldn’t have wanted them walking in the plowed fields themselves – and then the boys had gone into the big, old ramshackle barn that housed the gigantic ancient combine with its cornpicker blades facing the barn door opening like steel teeth.

They both had books to read and had climbed up to the loft and then out on adjacent thick beams running out from the high loft, leaning back against thick crossbraces ten feet above the roof of the combine. Wittgenstein had looked up at them and whined; the old dog had never liked being in the barn. Duane hushed the collie and the two boys read for a few minutes and then began talking. The conversation turned to the 1960 race and its candidates.

“Who are you for?” Dale had asked.

“My candidate’s not in the running any more,” said Duane. “Adlai Stevenson.”

Dale shook his head. He hadn’t heard of the guy.

“It’s okay,” said Duane. “Stevenson had a couple of shots at the presidency but was too smart for the electorate. Or so they say. In Stevenson’s first run, President Truman, who was supporting Adlai at the time, privately told reporters that Stevenson’s problem was that he couldn’t make up his mind on anything . . . ‘Can’t decide if he needs to piss  or not’ were Truman’s words.”

Dale had been shocked; he’d never heard Duane McBride use a bad word before. He also had no idea who this Truman was. Dale had just recently – in fifth grade – fallen in love with history, but his passion tended toward the Revolutionary War era. Any book or movie or TV show – like “Johnny Tremaine” -- with a musket in it fascinated Dale. But he wasn’t used to Duane, the smartest person he knew (or would ever know), using a bad word like “piss.”

3Duane must have noticed his friend’s reaction, because he lowered the old book he was reading and said, “It’s going to come down to Nixon and Kennedy. Who would you vote for if you could vote, Dale?”

Dale had shaken his head. “I really don’t know how people like my parents make up their mind on stuff like that. I mean, what do you use – other than choosing to be a Republican or Democrat – to make choices like that?”

Duane grinned. “I can tell you what yardsticks the Romans would have used to choose their leader . . . although with the Romans it wouldn’t have been a yardstick but a uncia, palmus, pes, cubitus, gradus, or passus stick.”

“Tell me,” said Dale, straddling the rafter and closing his own book.

“Well, first a good leader would have to have pietas – which sounds like piety and is, but it’s love and loyalty and duty to one’s country, Rome in their case, as well as to the gods and family. A man could be a good man, brave, but if he couldn’t be called pius, he shouldn’t be their leader.”

“What else?”

Gravitas,” said Duane. “That meant a profound seriousness toward all things political or religious – no clowning around or being petty about such things allowed. Part of gravitas was a distrust toward change and a resistance to it. The Romans didn’t like change. The old ways, they felt, were the best.”

“I think that Senator Kennedy wants to change stuff more than Nixon does,” said Dale. “Did the Romans have any other . . . whatchamacallit . . . criteria?”

“Besides pietus and gravitas,” said Duane, “they deferred to leaders who showed auctoritas, power and respect won by men of real experience, especially successful leadership in war, although leading well in peace counted.”

“My dad said that Kennedy was skipper of a PT boat during the war,” said Dale. “I think his boat got run over by a Jap destroyer.”

“Did he survive?” asked Duane.

Dale started to answer and then laughed instead. “So the Romans looked for a guy with . . .” He struggled to remember the list and then did. Something about Duane telling him this stuff, rather than a teacher talking, made him remember better. “With pietus, gravitas, and auctoritas. Anything else?”

Meritis, of course,” said the heavy boy who was also straddling a rafter, his brown shoes dangling. Duane McBride was the only kid Dale knew who didn’t regularly wear sneakers when he was out of school.  It was a very hot day for May, but Duane was, as always, wearing an old flannel shirt and heavy corduroy pants. “Meritis is the kind of auctoritas that’s conferred by long public service, the kind necessary to calm mobs and restore order.”

“Were the Romans worried about mobs?”

“Any sane society should be,” said Duane. “But the Romans understood – more than we do, I’m afraid – that politics is all about trying to impose some sense of order on a world and universe – and on people – whose normal condition is one of chaos, total confusion, anarchy. So when they chose leaders, they didn’t look for someone who could rile up a mob like, say, Robespierre . . .”

Whoever the heck he is, Dale had thought.

“ . . . or Patrick Henry . . .”

I know him! thought Dale.

“ . . . but rather someone who, with his hard-earned reputation of pietus, gravitas, auctoritas, and meritis could calm any mob of ordinary people, restore order with his words and presence rather than having to call out soldiers or cops. Would you like to hear a passage from my book that shows all this stuff?”

“Sure,” said Dale. “What’s the book?”

“The Aeneid. Here . . .” Duane flipped back thirty or forty pages in the old book. “This is Neptune . . . that’s Poseidon to the Greeks, of course, the god of the sea . . . restoring order to the chaos created by Juno, that was Hera to the Greeks, after she had loosed all of the Aeolian winds against the Trojan fleet, trying to kill Aeneas and all his men after they ran away from Troy . . .”

“The big horse!” cried Dale. The previous summer, one evening out at Uncle Henry and Aunt Lena’s farm, after Mike and Kev and Harlen and Lawrence and a bunch of the other boys had been hunting for the bootleggers’ cave in the woods, Duane had recited, from memory and in Greek, several pages of a story called the Iliad and then told them the rest of the story of the heroes and the big wooden horse.

“Yeah,” said Duane. “But even though Virgil’s talking about a god here, the same attributes apply to men the Romans would want to elect as their leaders.”  He read from the old book –

                                    “Just as, all too often,
some huge crowd is seized by a vast uprising,
the rabble runs amok, all slaves to passion,
rocks, firebrands flying. Rage finds them arms
but then, if they chance to see a man among them,
one whose devotion and public service lend him weight . . .”

Duane looked up. “That’s pietata gravem, a specific kind of weight based on piety.” He read again –

“they stand there, stock-still with their ears alert as
he rules their furor with his words and calms their passion.”

“Can I see the book?” said Dale.

Duane closed it and tossed it across.

Dale thumbed through it, frowning. “Is this Greek again?”

“Latin this time,” said Duane. “Virgil was a Roman poet.”

“You know what I think?” said Dale, tossing the book back. “I think we should have a president who could read this stuff in Latin and Greek like you do.”

Duane had laughed then with that unique, deep but silly laugh of his. “Maybe that’s why I liked Adlai Stevenson,” he said. “Even if he couldn’t make up his mind as to whether he had to . . . take a leak . . . or not.”


Of the five boys in the Stewart living room that Friday night in October of 1960, none will be so enmeshed with politics over the next five decades as will Jim Harlen.

When he is thirteen, Harlen will move with his mother and a potential stepfather from little Elm Haven to Chicago. The potential stepfather will disappear shortly after the move, but Harlen and his increasingly drug-dependent mother will stay there in an apartment on Kildare Avenue. By the time he is fifteen, Jim Harlen will be wandering the streets with a local thug named Kraz Kristowski who is lightly connected to the Chicago mob which, of course, puts Kirstowski and Harlen in touch with the Richard Daley political machine.

It’s challenging days for that machine in the mid-1960’s, since the huge black ghettoes on the South Side are beginning to break up as a result of civil rights legislation. The disintegration of the black community on the South Side –combined with  the rise of violence in the sprawling Daley-backed tenement projects along the Lake that had been so welcomed as a substitute for the slums – all meant a breakdown in the patronage system that kept Daley’s machine operating. Both the mob and the Daley operatives found that collecting from the South Side was a more and more dangerous – and iffy – proposition. When Harlen is seventeen, he will tell his local Irish ward heeler that he – Harlen – will collect from those nigger deadbeats. The brag gets him a personal audience with His Honor, Mayor Daley, and a lecture on how the Negroes in Chicago have been standup citizens and important patrons in his political operation.

Harlen – using Kraz Kristowski and eight of Kristowski’s thug friends – reorganizes the political and mob collections in the roughest precincts and neighborhoods of the South Side and, by the time Jim Harlen is eighteen years old, Kirstowski and twenty other older men will be working for him.

Harlen will draw a low draft number in 1969 and is sure to be drafted into the army at the height of the Vietnam War. The Daley machine fixes that for him and James M. Harlen is credited with deferment for three years as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, even though Harlen never sets foot on the campus. Although Harlen never goes to a real university, he is eager to learn and soon knows not only how Richard Daley has run his machine for decades, but how “The Man on Five” (Daley’s offices are on the fifth floor) delivered the 8,000 votes that gave the presidency to John Kennedy back in 1960.

By his early twenties, Harlen will be second-in-command of the infamous Chicago First Ward, where the Mafia and the Daley organization mesh like gears in a shockingly efficient machine.(Daley keeps his own ward and Irish neighborhood clean.) During the 1968 Democratic Convention, it is young Jim Harlen who carries Hizonner’s message to the Chief of Police: show these hippy punks no mercy. The Chief grins and tells young Harlen, “I’m thinking of giving the men t-shirts to wear under their riot armor that read –‘ We get on the street early to beat the crowds.’”

And so they did.

In 1972, the squeaky clean (and impossibly limp-wristed, according to Jim Harlen) Democratic nominee, George McGovern, will ban Mayor Daley from the Democratic National Convention, seating an Illinois and Chicago delegation led by Jesse Jackson instead. Harlen is in a bar in the Loop with Hizzoner’s oldest son, Richard M. Daley (who, at age 30 is only six years older than Harlen) and Harlen says to the young Daley, “Jesse Fucking Jackson. Twenty years ago, a shine tried to take your dad’s chair anywhere, there would have been a nigger anchored at the bottom of Lake Michigan.”

Daley’s son will sip his beer and say, “Times change, Mr. Harlen. Ten, twelve years, I predict there will be a black mayor in Chicago.”

Harlen will almost spit out the better half of his boilermaker at hearing that.

Young Daley smiles. “The blacks’ll get their ample snouts in the trough for four or five years – long enough for them to cross so far across the line that even Chicagoans get fed up with the graft and corruption - -then their mayor, whoever the hell he might be, will die suddenly, and then another white man will be mayor. Who knows, it might even be me.”

Hizzoner, the Man on Five, Richard J. Daley, will die from a massive heart attack – while visiting his doctor – in 1976, but by then, James M. Harlen is a state senator in the Illinois legislature. There will have been a lot of Daley machine bills marked PAID.

Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, is elected in 1983 to much local and national acclaim. “The days of the old Daley machine politics are over forever,” one newspaper editorial crows. In 1987, Mayor Washington will die suddenly, under mysterious circumstances (some say that cocaine is involved, others whisper that it was a Mafia hit). An autopsy by the Cook County Medical Examiner, who had been appointed by the previous mayor, Daley, will show that there were no traces of cocaine or poison in Mayor Washington’s body at the time of his sudden death. The cause of his death will be ruled as heart attack.

In 1984, at the age of 36, Jim Harlen will be elected to the United States Senate from the state of Illinois. Some of his fellow freshman senators that year will include John Kerry from Massachusetts and Al Gore from Tennessee,

Harlen will not change his lifestyle just because of his new day job as senator. For years he’s been a bisexual and Thursday nights at his million-dollar Lakeshore Drive penthouse are known to many in Chicago as “Anything Can Happen Night.” Various high-priced callgirls, transvestites, and male prostitutes sing those words to the tune of an old Mickey Mouse Club tune. Harlen is known for his generosity at these parties – both in terms of the amount of marijuana, cocaine, and even heroin he provides and for the extravagant gifts he showers on those whose favors and performances he really enjoys. Various other Washington senators and congressmen (and one congresswoman) find themselves attending Anything Goes Night during their frequent trips to Chicago for seminars, charity banquets, and political rallies.

Harlen’s trouble begins when Michal Dukakis’s campaign puts Jim Harlen’s name on the list of potential vice-presidential picks – some say above Lloyd Bentsen’s – during the 1988 campaign. When reporters flock to his office, Harlen will laugh and say, “I’m honored, guys, but I’m too young. I only turn forty next month. Governor Dukakis needs someone with more experience than I have . . . someone more cynical, if truth be told. Besides, I have too much important work to do here in the senate.”

But some Newsweek reporter turns up rumors of Anything Can Happen Night, of Harlen’s seamier early-days background in Daley’s machine, and even a tale that the respected senator from Illinois never attended – much less graduated with honors, as his official resumé states -- from the University of Chicago. Harlen pulls most of the strings and calls in most of his outstanding favors to quash these rumors, but in 1992 – with Bill Clinton running and Senator James Harlen’s name again in the limelight as a possible runing mate or even presidential candidate – the rumors reemerge. This time, in the best Bill-Clinton tradition, there’s a name and face attached to the rumors: a young male hooker from Chicago named, improbably, William “Sweet Billy” Howard Taft Meeks.

Just when the printed and television stories threaten to erupt into a firestorm, Jim Harlen will preempt events by resigning from the Senate. The reason, he says in an emotional and dramatic news conference (fragments of which will play on CNN for days), is not the scurrilous rumors currently being circulated by lobbyists of entrenched special interests opposed to his reform bills, but because he – James Harlen – is a gay man and, due to indiscretions years earlier in his youth, he is dying of AIDS.

The outpouring of sympathy and support is overwhelming. After taking office in January, the new president – William Jefferson Clinton – flies the retired and ailing former Senator Harlen to Washington to join him in a national conference on HIV and AIDS. President Clinton will shake Harlen’s hand in front of the scores of cameras and continue holding it, the first of many politically correct touchings that the AIDS-afflicted Jim Harlen will receive.

In 1994, Harlen will hire a ghost writer to produce his bestselling book – NO REGRETS: A Dying Gay Man Looks Back on a Lifetime of Public Service.

The book goes to fifteen printings and is an Oprah Pick six years after its first publication. During his first appearance on the Oprah Show – Harlen walks onstage using a crutch – Oprah hugs and kisses him for a record length of time and then continues to hold his hand through the entire interview. Senator Harlen’s sad, weary smile seems sincerely amused at times.

Harlen certainly has tested HIV positive, but he has no intention of dying. Since his diagnosis in 1988, he has been taking every combination of anti-viral cocktails that he can afford, and between his public and private (secret) wealth and his excellent congressional insurance, he can afford anything. By 1995, his medical and prescription bills – of which he pays none – run to more than $300,000 a year. Harlen has never felt better. He hires an even better ghost to write his second bestselling book, NEVER SURRENDER, a candid discussion of his courageous battle with AIDS symptoms he’s never had and the loss of so many AIDS-victims close friends whom he hardly knew. The second book will appear in 1999 and during his second appearance on her show in 2003, Oprah will kiss him on the mouth.

Perhaps because he has had to cut down on the use of strong recreational drugs because of the anti-HIV cockatils, Harlen is in the best shape of his life. The same could be said of his career. By 2005, Jim Harlen will be receiving $50,000 for his regular speech and $100,000 for day-long appearances, and his calendar is booked. (He would charge more, but Harlen doesn’t want to scare off the little podunk Depauw-type college. He can do five speaking engagements in a long weekend when he has to fly to some ass-end-of-the-universe destination like Indianapolis and he enjoys the limelight.)

He also enjoys college students, although his tastes now lean toward intelligent conversation and companionship there. His HIV and AIDS status have been public knowledge for so long that he couldn’t find a non-suicide-prone partner – male or female – if his life depended on it. But Harlen really isn’t interested in gay or heterosexual sex any longer, at least not in the usual sense. Since the late 1980’s, Harlen’s erotic tastes have run to children. Very few of them read the newspapers or tabloids. All of the kids –both boys and girls -- brought to Jim Harlen’s secret apartment near Lincoln Park are under twelve years of age, but more and more the senator prefers them to be younger than ten, some younger than seven. The children are provided by various contacts Harlen has made over the decades and the providers know that to out the former senator on this little habit of his would mean their death.

Whether the weekends at the Lincoln Park apartment mean eventual death for the children is of little interest to Jim Harlen. His childhood – with that alcoholic, drug-shooting whore of a mother – had been a Faustian hell, so why should these kids have anything better? Life’s a crap shoot starting from conception is how Harlen sees it.

In the late autumn of 2006, Harlen – his ghost hard at work on his third dying-from-AIDS book, SOME MIRACLES ARE REAL – will attend a secret meeting in Chicago that includes a variety of people who will later deny they were there or that the meeting ever took place. Among those present are Mayor Richard M. Daley and some of Harlen’s old Anything Can Happen Night friends who had gone on to bigger and better things. The gathering this night is being hosted by Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, aging academics who planted bombs in the Capitol, the Pentagon, and other buildings in the sixties to protest U.S. government policy and who are now respected leaders in the Chicago South Side and Hyde Park progressive communities. Also there that night will be a famous Chicago-born Hollywood actor-director star, a real-estate developer and lobbyist who is also a leading member of what is left of the top Chicago mafia family, one of the best-known civil rights leaders in the nation, and half a dozen other Illinois and national powerbrokers.

The meeting had been called to discuss whether Illinois’ new junior senator, Barack Obama, should run for the presidency of the United States of America. It turned out that everyone there – except perhaps for the senator’s wife -- was in favor of him doing so. One man at the party, a former top Bill Clinton strategist now CNN consultant, created an awkward moment at the end of the strategy discussion by turning to Mayor Daley and saying, “Now if this here thing gets too close during the actual election, are you prepared to get eight thousand or ten thousand or so dead people’s votes to put Barack over the top the way your daddy did for JFK?”

Jim Harlen has to work to keep from smiling in the sudden, total, embarrassed silence, which will be broken only when Mayor Richard M. Daley, who had been the public face and voice for Al Gore in the 2000 Florida recount, grins and says, “You’re damned right I will. If I have to register the dead folks myself.”

As guests are grazing at the dessert buffet after the session, Senator Obama will cross the room, shake Jim Harlen’s hand, and say, “I read your most recent book, Senator.”

Harlen will say, “I’ve read your most recent book, Senator. And I wish I’d used that title for my own book. For some of us, as you know, the audacity of hope is all that keeps us going from day to day.”

Obama shows a twisted smile that conveys concern and compassion. “Well, Senator, you may have noticed in the preface that I cite my pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, as the source for that phrase. It was the title of a sermon I once heard him give.”

Harlen nods. “I know the Reverend Wright very well, Senator. He and I go back many years. Along with Mayor Daley and others here, Jeremiah and I have done some of our own . . . ah . . . community organizing in the South Side, long before you came to Chicago.”

Obama nods but seems almost lost in thought, staring intently as if he is studying James Harlen’s face. Finally he says, “I just want to tell you, Senator Harlen, that I truly have taken some real inspiration from your books. I’m honored that you came here tonight, sir. If all this . . . fantasy . . . we were kicking around earlier tonight were somehow, impossibly, to come true, I would be pleased to have you in my administration in some capacity where your courage could inspire others to overcome similar overwhelming odds.”

Jim Harlen will smile. “I’m honored just to hear such a possibility mentioned, Senator. I look forward to doing whatever is in my small and waning powers to help you get elected and – of course – to help you in your noble goals once you take office.”


(Note: Part Two of “Watching the Presidential Debates in Elm Haven” will be in the next Message from Dan around Nov. 1.)


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