It was in the town of Dora, Oregon, population 10, in a room lined with bookshelves with a combined length equal to that of the Bismarck – and not by coincidence – that the question first arose.
I had been interviewing Don Walsh, who at the time was the only man alive to have been to the deepest point in the world’s oceans, a feat he had accomplished fully 50 years earlier when he piloted a wonky steel-and-glue contraption called a bathyscaphe to Challenger Deep, on the floor of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. For an hour he had been patiently narrating the story of the voyage to the bottom – the very, very bottom, a place less frequently visited by man than the moon. Though polite, he had told his story many times before, and his tone was automatic.
It was time to change the subject. What happened next, I asked? What was the next step in life after the voyage?
His face brightened and lightened. It lost five years in an instant.
“Well,” he said, “a lot of people think I died.”
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What Walsh did do next was anything but die. He commanded a submarine. He served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He gained three graduate degrees, worked in the Pentagon, founded a university institute with the rank of dean. He visited the Arctic and Antarctic so often – over 50 times – and did so much there that there is an Antarctic ridge, the Walsh Spur, named after him. He dived in Russian Mir submersibles on the Titanic and Bismarck (hence the precisely-engineered accumulated length of his bookshelves). He told me about these things with bracing enthusiasm, an hour and a half of detail. And he did so with such radiance because, by and large, nobody ever asks him about any of those things. For the rest of his life, all anyone will ever want to know about is the time that he went to the bottom of the sea in that funny little submersible.
Walsh is hardly alone in this. Imagine being an Apollo astronaut. Imagine that you are one of the tiny handful of people – 12, in fact, of whom eight are still alive – who has left the Earth, slipped its orbit, and travelled across the void to set foot on another world. And then you come back. For the rest of your life, you will only ever be famous for one moment: it will define you, like it or not. But you are barely 30 years old. You might have 70 left. What do you do to find meaning in the rest of your life when its defining moment has already happened?
“After Apollo I was standing on top of the mountain,” Charlie Duke, the tenth man on the moon, says. “There was nowhere else to go.”
We do odd things with biography. We reducepeople to a line, a statement, based on the most pivotal thing they ever did. The former prime minister. The Olympic medallist. The first man to the bottom of the sea.
But what happens when that biographical kernel, that top line of the Wikipedia entry, is set so young in life? How do you move on from an iconic moment that you will not only always be remembered for, but never be allowed to forget?
The Apollo astronauts offer a useful snapshot of the challenge of moving on. The diversity of their responses is like the scattershot debris field of asteroid craters on the moon: one defining event for impact, a host of unpredictable outcomes blown out in every direction, but always anchored by the fact that those footprints are still up there, eternal in the dust, no wind to erase them. Neil Armstrong actually said, later in life, that he wished somebody would go up to the Moon and smooth his prints out.
Take Alan Bean, an effervescent Texan who visited the Ocean of Storms on Apollo 12 in November 1969. After NASA he decided to redirect his life towards his true passion: art. But here’s the thing. In all the subsequent years, Bean has only ever painted one thing: the surface of the moon.
“When I was training to fly, I began to say: wait a minute. There’s young men and women here who can do this, but I’m the only guy who’s interested in art, who can celebrate this great human achievement in paintings,” he says. “When I’m dead and gone these paintings will remain and tell stories that will be lost any other way.”
An Alan Bean painting is quite a thing. In addition to its mesmerizing subject matter, it is rendered unlike the work of any other artist by the tools he uses. He has an embossed cast of his moonboot, which he uses to provide texture to his paintings, along with the hammer he used on his mission; and he uses moondust, taken from his mission patches, when he mixes his paint. Gimmick or artistry, it has resulted in his paintings selling for several hundred thousand dollars apiece.
What’s interesting about Bean today is the way the mission and the art have all got mixed up. He says: “When people go back to the moon, the crew members will look at the paintings and read the stories, maybe the one about me throwing a football to Pete.” The painting in question, called If we could do it all over again – are you ready for some football?, depicts Bean chasing a football thrown by his mission commander Pete Conrad across the lunar surface. But it’s a completely fictional scenario: they never did it. When one asks him about his recollections of the moon, he tends to respond by talking about paintings: “the edge treatment of the craters, are they sharp, the density.” Having escaped the Moon for a new career, it still dominates this new life.
Charlie Duke, who walked on the moon in 1972 on Apollo 16, suffered a profound sense of anticlimax afterwards, while also wrestling with the life-threatening depression his career had wrought on his wife, Dotty. “After Apollo, that drive that took me to the moon was inside, that focus that we had, the energy that we had. And it was: now what are you going to do?” He entered business, founding a beverage distributorship for Coors in San Antonio, but it wasn’t enough. “I began to think: is that all there is to this?”
And so he found faith. “The spiritual side didn’t take over so much I lost my desire for adventure: I still fly airplanes, but I see life as more a one-time adventure, one accomplishment. I’m pleased that what happened to me was so significant and I’m delighted that God has been able to use that in my life, to bring me a peace and a purpose in life.”
You might say Ed Mitchell, who went to the moon on Apollo 14 in 1971, reached the opposite conclusion after a life-changing moment on the voyage home during which – this is about as succinctly as one can put it – his mind was blown. Waving his hands around, as astronauts tend to do in order to illustrate to those of us who have always been bound by surly gravity just how trajectory and direction work in space, he explains. “Every two minutes you had a picture of the earth, moon and sun coming through the porthole, and a 360 degree panorama of the heavens. And that’s pretty wild, particularly since outside the atmosphere the stars are 10 times as bright and numerous as we can see on Earth.
“I knew that the star systems were what manufactured the molecules that make up our bodies. So all matter is made of star systems. We’re all stardust. We’re all the same stuff. And that was a big: Wow.”
Wow indeed. Mitchell would spend years trying to explain the epiphany and exhilaration he had experienced, the overwhelming sense of universal connectedness. He likens the experience “to a game of pick-up-sticks: within a few days my beliefs about life were thrown into the air and scattered about. It took me 20 years to pick up those sticks and make some kind of sense of it all.” He concluded, in the end, that our religions are insufficient and unenlightened, and has since dedicated his life to a study of consciousness and quantum mechanics. “The message is, we’ve got a lot to learn and we’re just getting started.”
Along the way, this brought him to some views some distance from the mainstream, not least his firm belief that we are visited frequently by extra-terrestrials. “They have probably been coming here for centuries,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s all good” – Mitchell doesn’t meddle with any conjecture about whether we have had alien visitors, and instead leaps to a defence of their behavior – “as there are some accounts of abductions that don’t sound so pleasant. But maybe it’s a misinterpretation. It could be that some of our visitors are not as enlightened as others, and since we have enlightened and unenlightened people here on Earth, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true there too.”
The moon turned people into artists, poets, believers, eccentrics; would he feel this way without having gone to the moon?
“The fact is that all of us that went to the moon and looked back at the Earth all agreed that if we could get our political leaders to have summits in space, we would have different political systems. Because it is a life changer.”
People move on from a moment of fame in a variety of different ways, but rarely in ones you might expect.
Joe Kittinger is famed for jumping out of a balloon capsule 31 kilometres into the sky – so high, in fact, that you can’t really call it a sky, more of a stratosphere – with an experimental parachute in 1960, setting a sky-diving record that stood for 52 years. His has been an extraordinary life, from spending a year as a prisoner of war in Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton to becoming the first person to balloon solo across the Atlantic. But perhaps what’s most interesting is that in later life, he spent years trying to help other people to break his own record. When someone finally did – Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian base-jumper, in 2012 – Baumgartner did so with Kittinger as his capsule communicator and mentor.
Why would someone devote so much of later life to erasing themselves from the record books? “Records are made to be broken,” he says. “I was amazed it took 52 years.” But in fact, the impression he gives is that the whole idea of a multi-year project – which Baumgartner’s jump became – gave Kittinger a whole new lease of life, and made him feel young again.
Some are irritated by their mark in fame. Bill Anders was on the crew of Apollo 8, one of the truly visionary endeavours humans have ever undertaken. This was the first mission to leave Earth orbit and travel to another world, circling the moon 10 times in 1968; its three-man crew were the first humans – the first of any species of anything – to see the Earth as a whole, a ball, a dab of colour just hanging there in the nothing. While there, he took the photo that we now know as Earthrise, said to be the most frequently reproduced image in history.
But he eschews the whole astronaut-celebrity thing, and refuses to sign autographs anymore, finding it a sad indignity that many of his Apollo peers make a living now from doing just that for $100 a signature. Instead, he granted me an interview only because it gave him the chance to talk about things that weren’t Apollo. And why not: his was an exemplary career in big business, culminating with a spell as turnaround chief executive of General Dynamics so radical and successful that Harvard now publishes case studies on it. He was running America’s nuclear energy at 40, and found the time to be ambassador to Norway along the way. “For me,” he says, “the business side of things is the bigger achievement than Apollo.”
Some keep doing much the same thing they always did. I met Chuck Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base when he was 89, more than 60 years after he broke the sound barrier for the first time at that exactly place in 1947. Our interview began thus.
“Is that an English accent?”
“I gotta tell you, I hated the English even more than I hated the Germans in World War Two. The meanest people I have ever seen, and we were supposed to be saving your god damn asses.”
The phrase ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’ was coined for Yeager, and he is the last man who would ever engage in introspection about life after fame, or what it means to find direction in life after a landmark moment. When Yeager broke the sound barrier that time, in his experimental bullet-like Bell X-1 aircraft, he did so with a broom handle wedging the lock because he had broken his ribs while horse-riding in the middle of the night two days earlier, had refused to tell anyone, and this was the only way he could close the hatch. His whole life has followed that bull-headed stubbornness ever since and kept him alive through – at the time of writing – 361 different types of aircraft, many of which turned out not to be able to fly, and at least eight major crashes. Here’s a representative transcript.
Is there really such a thing as the right stuff?
Nah. It sells books.
When did you last fly a jet?
October. Here. An F16. Hell, airplanes don’t change, like the steering wheel on your car: you turn right, it turns right. I’m just lucky, I’ve been flying air force planes for 72 years.
Will you fly one again?
I don’t know. If I do I will, if I don’t I won’t. I don’t live to do things like that.
Yeager, almost uniquely, doesn’t give a fuck what anybody thinks of him. Moving on, for him, has meant never really considering that there was anything to move on from, and just doing the same thing indefinitely, raging against the dying of the light.
Others take a total change of direction. Ray Wilson was a member of the 1966 World Cup-winning England football team, a truly iconic moment for the English. Wilson, a full-back, is by far the least known member of that beknighted side, for a simple reason: he turned his back on football not long after the game and became an undertaker in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. Imagine that. You go from having your name chanted by a hundred thousand people at once, then change your career so dramatically that from now on the only people you have a working relationship with will either be dead or bereaved.
Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic competition at the Montreal Games in 1976, aged just 14. Then she got the second. And the third. The first seven, in fact, in the space of three days, all before reaching puberty. And that, professionally speaking, was the peak: all downhill from there, less than halfway through your teens, still a child. When she got off the plane back to Bucharest, to be greeted by Nicolae Ceausescu and a national celebration, her eyes were red from crying, because she had been carrying a doll but had lost it.
What next? “Waking up, having breakfast, going to school, going to the gym. That’s how I see it,” she says. “I couldn’t see anything else I could do that would be meaningful. Plus, the career doesn’t end with an Olympics. I wasn’t 21.” She says the number as if it represents venerable old age: the deeply compressed lifespan of a female gymnast.
She did compete at another Olympics, winning more golds in Moscow, but by the age of 20 had to return to the increasingly miserable mainstream life of Ceausescu’s Romania. “Today, if you are an athlete, you are also a celebrity. When I was growing up, I was an athlete and that’s it. You need a job. Celebrities were only in Hollywood.” Under increasingly oppressive supervision from the Securitate, and struggling with all Romanians to find enough food to keep standing up, she defected – an ordeal involving a terrifying escape in total darkness across the border to Hungary, followed a day later by scaling seven barbed wire fences to enter Austria – in 1989. Today, she lives in Norman, Oklahoma, and is involved in a gymnastics academy with her husband and fellow Olympiad Bart Connor.
I also sought out people who didn’t choose their moment of fame, but had it forced upon them. United 232 was a DC-10 that suffered a full hydraulic failure, a situation so extreme that nobody ever trained for it, given the certainty of death that came with it. With the help of a training pilot who specialized in creating unlandable scenarios in simulators and who just happened to be sitting at the back of the plane, the crew did get the plane down, saving two thirds of the people on board. It is, at once, one of the greatest achievements in the history of flight, and a desperate tragedy that cost 112 people their lives.
How to get past a thing like that, the sense of heroism and failure at once? The captain that day, Al Haynes, resorted to two things to move on in later life: repetition, and baseball. A long-time Little League helper, maintaining its routines became increasingly important to him in the years afterwards, a vital sense of structure and contribution. And through Little League, he began to be asked to talk about the crash, starting with local Lions Clubs and moving on to steadily bigger audiences. By the time I met him, he had given the talk 1,700 times.
He doesn’t know why people are so interested. “I don’t advertise. I don’t do audition tapes. Somebody has got to have heard about it. It has turned out to be a generic talk, not just about aviation.” It has evolved into an explanation of the factors that helped to save people that day, and how they can be applied elsewhere in life.
“It’s all therapy,” he says. “Every time you talk, it’s therapy. People say: how can you see that tape again? I’ve seen it so many times. Each time I end up hoping it will work out different, but it never does. You have to talk. You have to talk.”
The chief flight attendant that day was Jan Brown, whose heroic behaviour at the back of the jet was overshadowed by a confrontation with a woman whose baby died in the crash, after Brown – following the ludicrous aviation protocol of the time – told her to put the baby on the floor. The rest of her life, pretty much every single day of it, has been devoted to changing the laws around the transportation of infants. “I feel very strongly,” she says, “that when something bad happens, something good must come from it.
“What is it about making the same mistakes and expecting a different result? It’s quite unbelievable to be still working on a safety issue that involves life. Life that can’t protect itself, but looks to us for protection.”
Russ Ewin, now 97, is one of the very last people alive ever to have been held in the Sandakan prisoner of war camp in Borneo; he is one of a group of officers who were moved to a different camp, theoretically as a punishment, before the Sandakan marches, one of the most absolute atrocities of the war, in which almost 2,500 Australian and British troops were marched or starved or murdered and only six survived, all of them by escaping.
It would be a simplistic reduction of this thoughtful and introspective man to say that he forgave – “it’s hard to distinguish between forgiving and forgetting. I suppose you could forget, then you wouldn’t have anything left to forgive” – but there has been an ability to rebuild and consider that is enormously humbling. He talks of the educational programmes the inmates set up, where a doctor from Sydney would take lessons in chook farming from a farmer, where an accountant would give business lessons to a Catholic priest. Now, he is able to say: “I found it very rewarding for my character, and I think most of the others did.”
“Soldiers often say the bond of prisoners of war is greater than among other humans,” he says. “That’s some of the saving grace.”
Another captive, the British journalist John McCarthy, has been still more able to use intolerable suffering to build something good. McCarthy spent five and a half years in captivity after being kidnapped in Lebanon in 1986, on his way to the airport to fly home. His was an experience of unjust misery: no word from home, no way of contacting family, even when his mother was dying without knowing if her son were even alive. He was led to believe he would be executed; led to believe he would be released; tormented and abused.
But when he was released, after a difficult period of readjustment that took years, he made his name as a journalist and writer – chiefly on the Middle East. Remarkably, McCarthy’s work stresses the Arabic and Palestinian point of view, despite the fact that these were the groups that imprisoned him.
“I think it was because, although the situation of being held hostage was extremely abusive, I did come to realize that things were not straightforward.” He was imprisoned with the passionate, poetic, angry Irishman Brian Keenan, whose experiences of the Troubles in Northern Ireland were instructive. ”So we came to realize that whilst we hated one or two of these guards because they were vicious bastards, it was only one or two. And while they were all responsible for putting a chain on me, for putting a gun to my head, let’s step back from that. I’m interested that most of these guys are not abusing us.”
Along the way he has accepted his ex-hostage label, and learned to live with it. “I know being a hostage is what people will always remember me for, and that’s fine. No matter how much older I am, it’s no problem.”
What can one learn from all this? Partly, what one might expect: that there is a fundamental richness to life that stops it ever truly being defined by a moment or ordeal, and that the best of us don’t dwell on those moments any more than is healthy, but instead look to move forward, and to find new things to be inspired and affected by.
It would have been disappointing to find this exceptional group of people resting on their laurels, wanting only to talk about the past as if the job was done in a single day in their thirties or twenties or even their teens. But that wasn’t the case, not once.
They’ll all die eventually; of course they will. Neil Armstrong’s passing was a sober reminder of the mortality of that whole era, as of all people. And when they’re gone, they’ll be remembered just as they already are: the first to the bottom of the sea, to the Moon, to break the sound barrier. Nobody will notice what they did next or think that as much as three-quarters of their lives came after their keystone events. But from having had the pleasure of spending time with so many of them, it’s comforting to report that they didn’t spend those long suffixed years just looking backwards.
No More Worlds to Conquer will be published by HarperCollins in Australia on June 1