He felt just slightly silly. He was eleven. He was too old, too mature for dressing up on Halloween, but when he saw the astronaut costume in its plastic bag on the shelf at the Piggly-Wiggly, he had to have it! Yes, it was silly. Yes, it was immature, but he had to have the costume!
Michael Bentley loved space. He loved astronomy. He had built a giant three-foot tall model of the Saturn V rocket that had sent Apollo 11 to the moon the previous summer. He had models of the Apollo spacecraft—the CSM that stayed in orbit around the moon and the LM that landed. He had a model of the Gemini, the precursor spacecraft to the Apollo. He had tacked the National Geographic’s map of the moon to the wall of his bedroom. He had a two-inch refracting telescope his father had given him for his sixth birthday and a three-inch reflecting telescope he had gotten the previous Christmas. He spent many a night in his backyard looking at the moon and the planets. He had even seen the four largest moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn! One day, he was going to be an astronaut. He was determined. He was going to be on the first manned flight to Mars in 1984! Everyone knew that was the next step and he, Michael Bentley, would be on that flight! Yes, he loved space.
Michael had a secret, though. A shameful secret that was embarrassing and would cause consternation and derision if it were ever, ever revealed. His secret, which he would die to protect, was... he liked to lock his bedroom door so that no one could catch him doing it... he would sit at his desk... and... pretend he was an astronaut.
He had a blue, one-piece jump suit that looked just like the ones the Apollo astronauts wore in space when they took off their space suits and he would wear it and pretend he was on an Apollo spacecraft. He would fantasize all different kinds of situations. He would be in control when the launch had to be aborted and the emergency rocket above the capsule had to be fired to lift the crew away from the malfunctioning booster. He would climb down the ladder on his bunk bed, pretending to climb down the ladder of the Lunar Module to the surface of the moon. He would lie in bed and pretend to be experiencing first hand the excitement and thrills of launching into space and he would recite all the astronaut communications he had heard on television during the actual launches. He loved pretending he was an astronaut, but he had to be mature around the others. Everyone knew Michael was intelligent and mature and if anyone ever, ever caught him fantasizing... well, the embarrassment and humiliation would be too much.
But, when he saw the astronaut costume on the shelf at the Piggly-Wiggly, he had to have it! He didn’t care if it seemed silly. He had to have it. Strangely, when he approached his mother in the frozen foods aisle and asked her for it, she didn’t react at all as if she thought he was silly or childish. All she asked was, “How much is it?”
“$1.95,” he replied, hoping it wasn’t too expensive.
She shrugged. “I don’t see why you can’t wear your red devil costume again, but...”
“Mom, I’ve worn it since I was eight. I’ve grown. I’m too tall for it. I look like a dork in it.”
“All right. I’ve got to get your brother and sister a costume, too, so go get it.”
And, he did. And, now he stood in his bedroom on the morning of Friday, October 31, 1969. The Seventeenth Street Elementary School was asking all students to dress up in their costumes and come to school for a day of fun and frivolity, in between reading, arithmetic, and art lessons. This was going to be sooo cool. He would be the only astronaut there. He would look so very cool.
He tore the plastic cover and...
His heart sank. The mask was... stupid. It wasn’t a space suit helmet. Space suit helmets were round and white with dark visors to block out the harsh, unfiltered light of the sun. This looked like a fighter jet pilot’s helmet with a stupid picture of a grinning man’s face.
It got worse.
He pulled out the suit and groaned with horror. First, it was silver. Everyone, everyone knew Apollo spacesuits weren’t silver. They were white. And it didn’t look realistic at all! It was stupid. And, worse... it had a stupid, idiotic picture of a kid—a kid, for Pete’s sake—on the front, wearing that very costume! Why in the heck would they do that? It was stupid! It wasn’t anything like a real spacesuit. It was stupid! It was junk! There was no way he could wear that! People would think he was dork if he wore that piece of junk!
He sank down and sat on the edge of the lower bunk, his little brother’s bed, in despair and disappointment. He had so hoped to have something that looked like a real spacesuit so he could wear it when no one was around and pretend to be a real astronaut. But, this was just dumb. This was stupid. This was junk.
His brother, two years younger than Michael, entered the bedroom from brushing his teeth and took one look at the costume Michael was holding and started laughing.
“You can’t wear that,” he exclaimed. “You’ll look like a dork!”
Michael dropped the costume on the floor, pulled his windbreaker on, trudged to his desk, picked up his arithmetic book and his notebook and walked out of the room.
“Why aren’t you in your costume?” his mother demanded as he entered the kitchen to go out the back door.
“It looks stupid. It doesn’t look anything like a real spacesuit.”
She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “What the hell’s the matter with you? You begged me to buy it for you. It cost me two dollars and money doesn’t grow on trees, you know. So, you’re damn-well gonna wear it! Now, go in there and put that thing on! Now!”
“But, Mom, I’ll look like a dork!”
“Well, you made your bed. Now you’re going to sleep in it!”
What the heck did that mean?
Disconsolately, he turned around and trudged back to his bedroom. His little brother was putting the finishing touches on his pirate outfit. Michael slipped his loafers off and pulled the fake, stupid spacesuit on, slipped the mask over his face and then pulled his windbreaker on over it. Listening to his brother laughing, he trudged out the door.
Walking down the street, he was grateful his mask was on so that no one would know who he was, but when he passed one house to which he delivered the afternoon paper, the elderly man standing on the porch in his robe and sipping a cup of coffee called, “Nice costume, Michael!”
The boy nodded and halfheartedly waved.
Dozens of pirates, ghosts, vampires, witches, princesses, and Frankenstein’s monsters were crossing the front lawn of the school as he plodded toward the entrance. Everyone was laughing and teasing each other. It was all good-natured fun. Michael, however, was too depressed to get into the spirit of the day. His face was burning with humiliation as he walked down the hallway and when he entered the sixth grade classroom, his teacher, Mr. Duncan, standing at the chalkboard and writing, raised an eyebrow at him.
“I know. It looks dorky,” Michael mumbled. “It’s nothing like a real spacesuit.”
“It’s...cute,” Mr. Duncan replied with a taunting grin.
Michael sat down in his desk beside the windows on the far side of the room and slipped his homework onto the shelf beneath his seat. He slowly turned his face toward the door to see the other cool and exciting costumes and saw...
...the very same fake costume entering the classroom! Who was it? He wasn’t sure at first, but the black hair gave it away. It was Scott Winefsky, the quiet kid who never spoke to anyone! His shoulders were slumped in exactly the same way Michael’s had been when he was walking—with shame and embarrassment! He must have been surprised to discover it was a stupid costume the same way Michael had been!
Scott paused before sitting down at his desk on the opposite side of the room and looked at Michael. He raised his mask and an understanding smile came over his face. Michael raised his and rolled his eyes and smirked.
During the restroom break at the midway point in the morning, Michael found himself in line behind Scott as the class marched single-file to the restroom. Scott turned around and grinned.
“I really thought this was going to be more realistic,” he said.
Michael smiled and nodded. “Yeah, where are the hoses?”
“They could have had a blow up backpack, too” Scott offered.
“Yeah, and the helmet? No astronaut wears anything like this!”
“And the stupid picture on the front,” Scott groused. “I thought this was going to be a cool costume.”
“Me, too,” Michael replied.
They reached the restroom and stood in line before the urinals awaiting their turns. Scott turned to him as Michael realized this was actually the first time either had spoken to the other.
“So, I live a block from you. Maybe we could go out together tonight and be astrodorks together.”
“Yeah, it might be fun.”
Scott grinned and said, “And, afterward, we can go back to my place. KWAK is replaying Orson Wells radio version of War of the Worlds tonight.”
“Yeah! I know. I can hardly wait.”
Scott grinned and exclaimed, “Really?”
Michael nodded and then added, “And Channel 8 is showing Dracula at 10:30, after the news! The real one, with Bela Lugosi!”
“Cool! Maybe you can... stay over?”
Michael grinned and said, “Yeah, that would be cool.”
Now, Michael’s only problem was figuring out how to pee without embarrassing himself over what had just happened below his belt!