Neil sat on the park bench, chin and hands resting on the top of his cane. His sparse white hair waved in the breeze, keeping time with the arctic grass planted around the bench, the statues, and the dark red stone walking path through the park.
This was Mars One Park. “Built to honor the first successful human exploration of the red planet and inspire children and adults alike”, they said some time ago. They had invited him to come for the commemoration. He came, but did not speak. It was too painful.
And yet Neil was drawn back to it not long afterward and discovered that there was healing here. So he made it here regularly for the last year. He came sometimes specifically to remember the early times. He came sometimes to forget the later times. This was the place where both happened.
The arctic grass and the scrub trees, the deep red paving bricks for the path and the statues of the team, the other monuments and museum pieces of those early days mattered little to his memories. His eyes that were once so blue could still see the barren, pale marscape that greeted them on their landing and those first sols before they began shaping the planet to fit human activity. And, so, being here where it started, seeing with his mind’s eye the barren place of his past overlaid with the richness of the present park, it allowed him to follow the trails of memories where he wanted.
The people sometimes distracted. Today appeared to be one of those days because the crowd was great and the buzz of conversation was strong in the air. Not packed, just busy with lots of walking and talking family groups. Perhaps a holiday. Neil considered the crowd, the length of the sol, and thought that it might be the one holiday he should not have come. It might be Mars Explorer day, the day to honor their landing. Yes, the more he considered it the more likely it seemed.
The crowds tended to move fast like a river and weave around him whether he was walking or sitting on his bench. They left him alone in his bubble of memories as if he had passed beyond their time. It wasn’t the crowd that was bothering him. It was one person. The young blonde man standing across the square was staring at Neil thoughtfully. He obviously already knew or was on the verge of recognizing Neil.
It appeared that he did. He was now walking purposely across the grass and the sidewalks directly to Neil.
He stopped a respectful distance in front and waited until Neil gave him his attention. Neil relaxed, thinking that this would be a more graceful encounter that he could more easily bear.
“Dr. Fellowes,” the newcomer began, “You are Dr. Neil Fellowes of the Mars One team, correct?”
He paused, respectfully waiting an answer from Neil as permission to continue. A man with a family walking passed jerked his head and slowed to look at them both.
Neil acknowledged he was with a nod and the young blonde man continued, “Forgive me for interrupting you at this beautiful park which must bring you such joy, and sadness. I really admire you, and the whole team, and wish they were still here with us as I am sure you do. May I sit with you? I would love to talk with you for a moment, or, for as long as you are willing.”
Neil shifted on the bench, leaned back, and gestured for the man to sit beside him. “I can’t promise a good conversation, but please, sit.”
The young man sat and both turned so that they were looking more towards each other. He proffered his hand to Neil and introduced himself, “I am Kurt Persson. I am a first generation Mars-son. I am in my second year of university and my heart still loves Mars history, I eat the classes and books up. Both my father and mother were early settlers from Sweden when they were young, and they had the honor of working with you for a time, on wind management. It was those stories that gave me my love of Mars history and enabled me to recognize you.”
Kurt’s voice took on a slight Swedish accent as began talking about his parents. Neil put two fingers on his temple as he concentrated on sifting through his memories. He smiled, “Ah, was it Harald and Kerstin Persson?”
“Yes!” Kurt said with a huge smile and obvious excitement.
Neil nodded, “Very brilliant engineers, individually, but as a team, phenomenal. They saved time, resources, and lives too, I know.”
Neil reached over and grabbed Kurt’s hand and squeezed it. “That time of life was one of my greatest times, oh the landing, the setup, that was exhilerating. But the things the teams like those with your parents did were remarkable. Are they still living?”
“Very much so,” Kurt answered, “Though I fear they are on the far side of the planet and I don’t get over to them often enough. They are working on a new, higher dome structure for larger cities, to house more above ground, but to change the planet less destructively in doing so. I think that was something you helped them see.”
They paused. Neil’s perspective was shifting and he was looking through the present to the barren past. The crowd disappeared out of his peripheral vision and the buzz of their conversation melted away. It was him and the beginning. And he just started sharing.
“This crater was absolutely beautiful in it’s barren starkness when we touched down. The stone and regolith had been practically untouched forever. A rover half a century before we arrived, and some deliveries of machinery and raw supplies in the few years leading up to our arrival. One over there,” he said pointing off his right shoulder, “around the southern ridgeline, another on the north, and one right just west of our touch down spot where we are sitting.
“The planet was raw, powerful hostility to life, but it was at the same time raw loneliness, calling for me, for all of us to make it home.” He paused and the loneliness was tangible despite the crowd pressing them a moving around their little bubble of the park. The man and his family stood there facing them both and yet neither Neil nor Kurt noticed. The father leaned in and whispered to his wife and their children and gently beckoned another man and his family to come over.
“When we landed I was looking out the porthole window just this direction.” He motioned with arm in a straight line in the direction the bench was facing. “I saw the ridge where we felt was the most likely place to tunnel down for living quarters. This crater, Mars, it was going to be our home. It called us, it called all of us. But it didn’t want us yet. Not yet.”
Neil paused lost in memories. As Kurt looked slightly away from Neil he noticed the people around them. The large milling crowd had changed. The buzzing, deafening conversation has dropped a degree in their vicinity. People were stopped and listening. Just a few close by but it was spreading as more and more as he saw people whisper, point, and then squeeze in close.
“The sixteen of us were itching to get out of the lander immediately, ” he began again. “But we forced ourselves to take the proper time to run through the safety checks on our suits, the pressure locks, the radios. Everything went by the book not just once, not even just twice. We were determined to have no mistakes. That was our mantra and we stuck with it. This was our life and we could not go back if we did not succeed.”
He looked up to point again, straight ahead to the drill site and now entrance to the museum and noticed the dozen people gathered around listening to his story.
“Oh, hello,” Neil mumbled, momentarily distracted.
“Please, Dr. Fellowes”, a dark skinned man, the father of the family said, “Please continue if you don’t mind us listening too.”
Neil nodded, and the man promptly sat on the grass at his feet, gesturing his family and the others to sit also. They sat and squeezed in, surrounding the bench, cameras and devices came out for pictures and recordings. Neil glanced back to Kurt and tried to pick up where he left off.
“We ran the safety checks over and over, taking our time for two whole Sols. I even had time to connect up the wireless controllers to the equipment,” he motioned towards the south drop he had pointed out earlier. “And programmed them to move and meet us at the drill point there,” he finished pointing straight ahead over the sitting crowd.
“We finally began debarking on the third Sol, two by two, as it happened, like Noah’s animals. Nobody said anything about that the time, it’s just the limit of what we could squeeze in the airlock fully suited. I think it was Rachel who first made the joke about us being Noah’s pets but it was much later.
“I wasn’t the first one out, it was not Neil on the moon and Neil on Mars, though I jockeyed hard for that distinction — Neil Armstrong and Neil Fellowes, the first men on our first expeditions setting feet down off earth,” Neil was smiling big remembering it all. “I was second wave with Robbie. It was Rachel and Anton, me and Robbie. We were coming out as fast as we could. Nobody was saying anything. We just got out and moved off enough to make room for the others and stood here,” Neil gestured around them, “in the red silent wasteland, absorbed by the silence. Silence out of respect in part. But silence out of mostly shock I think.
“I didn’t even break the silence. I wanted too, so badly I wanted to. I had dreamed of it all my life, of mimicking the steps and words of my hero Neil Armstrong but on Mars. And here,” Neil stomped his foot, “and here I was.
“But we were still earthlings then. Earthlings in shock at being on Mars. We had all been completely enraptured as we came out the airlock and saw the beautiful pale red, barren view, and two moons! Two moons– Phobos,” Neil raised his left hand pointing the northwest, “was moving fast, coming over that ridgeline. And Deimos just hanging high up over there…” he raised his right hand to the north east.
“We were just silent and soaking it in. I think I know why- Neil, Neil had the blue marble called Earth that was home right there,” he said pointing to a blank sky.
“It was his anchor, keeping him focused. This,” he gestured around him, “this red land, was not ready for humans and yet it was our home. We were alone. We were earthlings. On the moon there was a blue and green planet to call home. Earthlings standing on Mars had almost nothing but the suits on our backs.
“So we kept coming out of the lander– eight and still no words had been spoken. I knew the moment was here and I thought perhaps I was destined for it after all. I tried to gather my thoughts and focus. I had written a dozen sayings that I thought passable though I never thought they compared to Armstrong’s ‘One small step’. I had prepared for it– and in fact we all did, we admitted later. But no one spoke. No one could make thoughts into words.”
Neil paused, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“Nine and ten were just coming out, Miranda and Sophie. All of sudden, Robbie… Robbie just opened his mouth to say precisely the wrong thing as he had knack for. At this singular event, an auspicious event, the most auspicious event in a century, an event that required a spectacular saying. And Robbie just spoke. Words said that cannot be unsaid.”
Neil leaned back, closing his eyes, the slight smile growing larger. “Still, it was pretty funny, later. We were shocked at first. Disbelief. Then angry… He killed our history making moment, never to be repeated. The death of a moment… And it was like we went through many of the stages of grief all in an instant for that moment we had been waiting for. Oh, we did finish with laughter, laughs for a lifetime at his expense…”
Neil leaned forward again, resting his chin on his hands on the cane again. His eyes were sparkling now, not the bright blue of his youth but the wise, aged grey eyes of lifetime exploring and seeing new things. The crowd was nearly thirty strong and enraptured, silently experiencing Neil’s story. Neil glanced around the crowd and spied the children from the first family to stop and motioned at them.
“Do you know what Robbie said?” he asked them. “We tried to change the recordings and to get something more magnificent for posterity but I’m afraid it was too late. Tell me, do you know what he said?” Neil asked the boy who looked to be about 10.
The boy looked shy, frozen in place. Neil smiled and gestured to the girl next to him, slightly younger he thought. “Or you?”
The big eyed, raven haired girl smiled shyly and nodded that she did. “Go ahead, tell us” Neil encouraged her.
She blushed, but loudly and proudly said, “Dang! I forgot to pee!”