Illustration for the story "Angle of My Dreams" by Jay Lake for the collection Greetings from Lake Wu, to be published by Wheatland Press. The book is set to be released in October at the World Fantasy Convention in D.C. but shortly will be available for pre-order from Wheatland Press.
The book will also be sold in a special very limited (26 copies!) Box of Wonders edition in a handmade wooden box, with the book, a set of color prints of the illos, a bag of tchotchkes (hand-picked from fossils, crystals, coins, medallions and other cool little bits), the only copy of a one-off story by Jay about a letter from the alphabet, and an accompanying one-of-a-kind illo by me.
I loved this story. The idea of making wonderful things happen by the sheer power of enthusiasm. What could be more magical than flying, simply because you want to? To soar above the earth, to commune with clouds, birds and even the Space Shuttle. To make your arms transform into wings, and perhaps it's no accident that the boy's shirt takes on the shape of a butterfly... To pirouette and zoom so high that you can see the curvature of the earth, time and space bent to your will. Wow.
The story reminded me a lot of one of my all-time favorites: Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Summer Running." That story is also about an enthusiastic little boy, who also stars in Dandelion Wine. The boy - Douglas Spaulding - is Ray's alter ego, as Douglas is Ray's middle name.
The model I chose for this illustration was a neighborhood kid who, I thought, looked like Jay might have when he was younger. He even has a name similar to Jay Lake's: Jake. And thus this boy, and this story, seem like a perfect representation of Jay's alter ego as a child.
I did this painting and wrote this introduction about a month and a half before the space shuttle Columbia broke apart and burned up on re-entry on February 1, 2003. It has now been about twenty hours since my housemate woke me up to tell me the news. I consider myself a strong person, a go-getter, someone not daunted by large tasks. But as I write this my fingers are weak and my words and feelings faltering, uncertain. It's still a horrible shock to the system to recall to mind the footage of the shuttle breaking into chunks, smeared across the sky like butter across toast. That footage they showed over and over and over on CNN, like the World Trade Center collapsing in a ball of dust over and over and over again. Like being kicked in the head again and again; you couldn't make it stop, but you couldn't turn it off.
The shuttle broke up the way a meteor does, the way a meteor is supposed to. Horrifying to think of seven individuals falling from the sky 200,000 feet up, burnt beyond recognition. For four of the seven, it was a first space trip. How especially sad for the astronaut Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. Maybe I was hoping that space could eventually be a place of reconciliation. In Star Trek we were taught that Russians and Americans could work together peacefully in space. Same was true later about humans and Klingons. In 1975, during a thaw in the Cold War, we saw some of that become reality when the Russian Soyuz capsule docked with the last American Apollo flight. Maybe in the future a space shuttle could carry aboard an Israeli and a Palestinian? Or maybe a descendent of Holocaust survivors and a descendant of Nazis?
It takes years to train an astronaut; with Ilan Ramon we were halfway toward my vision. He carried not only the hopes and aspirations of a small, war-torn country surrounded by enemies. But he also carried physical symbols, too, including a penciled moonscape drawn by a boy who later died at Auchswitz; Ilan's own mother had survived a year and a half there. He also carried a mezuzah; this is a small case holding text from Deuteronomy reminding us to love the Lord our God and serve Him and keep His commandments. A mezuzah is attached to the doorframe of a house and touched whenever you enter it. One Ilan carried had a Star of David ringed with barbed wire and was a gift from San Francisco artist Aimee Golant, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. How sad. And, of course, it makes me terribly, terribly angry to see Iraqis gloating over this misfortune. They celebrate, calling it God's revenge, as Ilan had been one of the Israeli pilots responsible for blowing up Iraq's nuclear reactor two decades earlier and had fought in the Yom Kippur war before that. I shutter at the notion of this tragedy giving Saddam Hussein and his allies additional verbal ammunition on the eve of war. And how tragic for India, too. Her first astronaut, Kalpana Chawla who had flown on the shuttle before, also lost. How sad. And how sad for America, a country still weak with fear and quietly trembling after the horrible losses of September 11, 2001. This truly was a global disaster.
It is sad for me to look at my painting now that the Columbia is gone. Sad because the shuttle in the story and in the painting is the Challenger, but it might as well have been the Columbia. Sad because in the painting the shuttle is rising through the air, as is the little boy. Sad also because the boy will eventually tumble from the sky and return to earth. Sad because the Challenger had an explosion during ascent and then tumbled into the sea.
I did not personally know anyone who died aboard the Challenger, but I have friends who did. The Challenger's black astronaut, Ron McNair, had been the karate instructor for a friend of mine in Boston. And my friend Lisa Bartsch's family knew the family of the Challenger's Japanese-American astronaut, Ellison Onizuka. A month before the Columbia disaster, we had visited the Onizuka space center at the Kona airport on the big island of Hawaii. There on display were Onizuka's Boy Scout merit badges (he had been an Eagle Scout), and the first baseball he hit for a home run in high school.
And now I look again at my painting, and I see the space shuttle rising. And I remember that the fatal damage to the shuttle's left wing probably occurred early in lift-off, when a briefcase-sized piece of foam struck the wing's leading edge. The damage did not prevent the shuttle from reaching orbit and the missions itself was textbook perfect. Only upon re-entry was the extent of the damage self-evident. This was when temperature sensors and a tire pressure gauge went off the scale and failed, and then shuttle suffered what we euphemistically call "catastrophic failure," but which probably means either a hole starts at or spreads from a two-foot-long crack in the leading edge and then burns through the soft aluminum skeleton underneath, resulting in loss of big chunks of the wing, and the entire ship, which under the best conditions flies like a brick, loses control and tumbles, which would expose the top portion of the shuttle (which doesn't have any heat shields) to the searing heat of re-entry, probably concomitant with loss of power and computer control, and possibly the explosion of the hydrazine fuel tanks, followed by the 122-foot long shuttle being broken mostly into pieces no bigger than two or three feet across that are then strewn across the fields of Texas, Louisiana and several other states. But in my painting the shuttle is still rising. And I think of George W. Bush's words as he said, "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to earth, but we can pray that all are safely home." Perhaps in my painting the shuttle is still rising, past the birds, past the clouds, past the attenuated tops of the atmosphere, all the way to heaven. Perhaps.
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Image (c) 2003 Frank Wu