The Martian Artifact
Richard J. O’Brien
At Yorkship Elementary School my kindergarten teacher Miss Wolverton taught us how to make space helmets out of brown paper grocery bags. It was late 1973. NASA had launched the uncrewed Skylab the previous week aboard a modified Saturn V launch vehicle. My classmates and I drew multicolored control buttons and small speakers on our helmets along with crudely rendered NASA logos. Our destination that day was no Skylab. We were going beyond Earth’s pull, past the moon, and straight on to Mars. For our space travel lesson that day the schoolyard became the red planet.
My class stayed outside for ten minutes. When a classmate mimicked Neil Armstrong walking on the moon he was reminded by Miss Wolverton that Mars did in fact have more gravity than Earth’s satellite. She also informed us that we could not remove our helmets while walking on the surface of Mars since there was no oxygen. Of course, this news gave the resident miscreants license to ignore the ruling, remove their helmets, and die a mock death like something straight out of a cartoon. Someone may have mentioned his “epiglottis” in the voice of Bugs Bunny. Miss Wolverton took it in stride, correcting their behavior. Then she encouraged us to bring back a Mars rock or other artifact.
Uneven Eddie (not his real name) picked up an old sock with a stick. The sock lay atop an exposed root of an oak tree that had been there before the school was built. Uneven Eddie pronounced his discovery a rare sample of Martian cheese. He got his nickname on account of him being born with one leg shorter than the other. Uneven Eddie wore a special shoe to stabilize his gait, but he still walked like he was lopsided. His biggest problem was not his congenital defect. No, Uneven Eddie was just plain ignorant. When other kids laughed at him he thought he was making friends. Poor Uneven Eddie. He wore stupidity like a badge of honor. Miss Wolverton informed my classmate that he could not bring the soiled sock into school. She said it was contaminated. I still remember the sock on the end of Uneven Eddie’s stick. It was olive drab in color and stiff. Contaminated indeed.
“You may bring the stick into the classroom,” Miss Wolverton suggested, “and consider it evidence of Martian vegetation.”
Uneven Eddie regarded her for a moment, mumbled something about the “stupid stick,” and tossed it aside.
Back then I convinced myself, as I imagined other like-minded children did too, that I would be living on Mars by the year 2000. With youth comes folly. I am fifty-five years old now. Mars is the farthest from Earth as it has ever been.
These days I think about filing a class action lawsuit against NASA for keeping my generation on Earth. If I had my druthers, and NASA stayed on the ball, I would have faced three possible outcomes: becoming part of the first wave to colonize Mars, getting turned down for space flight for health reasons (read: psychological ones), or perishing mid-flight in a colossal fireball when the rocket malfunctioned and exploded somewhere off the Florida coast before it ever reached the stratosphere. I might have pursued the lawsuit on the grounds of mental cruelty. How dare NASA keep me grounded here, working on terra firma like a schnook? In truth, I blame the federal government. Every American over the age of eight understands in some way, or at least I hope they do, that the United States government is broke. What restitution could they possibly make? Score one for the bean counters and the dream killers.
By the time I turned fourteen I had put Mars aside to attain more earthly goals like getting high and losing my virginity. And like many American teenage boys I wanted to play lead guitar in a rock and roll band. I remember seeing a photograph of the Patti Smith Group in the pages of Creem Magazine while they were on tour in Italy. I thought Lenny Kaye looked so cool. Plus, Patti Smith had gone to high school in nearby Deptford, New Jersey. What were the chances of lightning striking three times in the Garden State between Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, and me? Four times if you include Jon Bon Jovi? Very slim, as I will soon reveal.
One night I was listening to Kiss Alive II on eight-track in the basement rec room. I was stretched out on a black pleather recliner with giant headphones on, the kind that by rights should have strengthened my neck and made it thicker, given the set’s weight, when my brother Mike popped the Kiss live album out of the eight-track player and slapped in Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. Prior to that night, aside from the Lenny Kaye photo, the guitar bug had not quite bitten me yet. Then I heard Jimmy Page’s opening chords on “Rock and Roll.” After that night, everything changed.
A friend of my brother’s sold me his black Gibson Les Paul knockoff for fifty dollars. Kyle was his name. I thought it was a cool name, a lead guitarist’s name. Why, I wondered, did he sell the guitar for so cheap? Was the neck warped? Was a pick-up not working? Was Kyle short on funds for Acapulco Gold? Frankly, I didn’t care. I was on my way. But first I needed a practice amp. My father helped me buy one at Sears. His only prerequisite was that the amplifier come with a jack for headphones. I still marvel that I walked away from such a set-up, what with those heavy headphones, not crippled or deformed.
Formal lessons began straightaway around the corner from my house once a week. By then I was working at a car wash on weekends. The job was awful, but my girlfriend worked there. I was in love. She didn’t like slackers. Our relationship would be short-lived, and so would the job. Anyway, the lessons didn’t last long. How many times can a boy play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” before he loses his mind? After a month of that song and “Buffalo Gals (Won’t You Come Out Tonight),” I had been to the edge and stared into the abyss. I needed more. Surely, there was some local hotshot guitar virtuoso who would play Mephistopheles to my Faust and broker a deal with the devil to share with me hidden musical knowledge.
Enter my sister who knew a guy in our high school who gave guitar lessons. He lived in the next town a couple of miles from our house. His name was Steve. During the first lesson he taught me to play “Smoke On the Water” by Deep Purple. I never got past it. The following week, Steve tried to teach me the opening riff to “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush off their new Permanent Waves album. The whole thing eluded me. I began to think the Les Paul knockoff was cursed. So, I quit. It was for the best. In the back of my mind Mars still reigned. I doubted rock and roll had much of a future on the red planet. My enthusiasm for the guitar died off rather unceremoniously after that. I lied to Steve and told him I could not afford to keep paying for lessons. The thought occurred to me that maybe Kyle knew the guitar he sold me was cursed. I gave away the guitar and the amplifier to a friend. He learned to play quite well on it.
After my guitar-playing woes I got into martial arts. There was a six-week-long self-enrichment course entitled Basic Karate that met once a week at my high school. Prior to that I tried to talk my father into paying for karate lessons for me. He was a big believer in trying things before committing to them. In other words, he didn’t want to fork over the money every month. I ended up at the Basic Karate course along with a high school friend. The classes met for an hour and a half on a Wednesday night. The instructor’s name was Manny. He was a Camden cop. Manny was in phenomenal shape. Shotokan was his thing. After Basic Karate ended, my school buddy and I found ourselves in the same situation. We were too poor to afford our own lessons at a legitimate school, and our respective parents were not willing to pay. I should have known it would be a harbinger of things to come. With no option to attend any school of martial arts, my friend Joe and I did the next best thing. We bought how-to books on karate and kung fu at the local mall and practiced with each other. American kickboxing was in full swing, thanks to the likes of Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace (we bought both of the kickboxers’ books). We were still sophomores, Joe and me. Eventually, we made the acquaintance of a twelfth-grader named Dave who had some karate lessons under his belt, wrestled on the varsity team, and was considered by all the cliques at our school to be a general badass. Joe and I would go to Dave’s every Saturday to train and spar, which is to say get beaten senseless by Dave since neither of us thought to wear headgear or protective groin cups. “You might get kicked in the balls in a street fight,” Dave used to tell us. “Will you be wearing a cup then?” He meant well, Dave did, but for years afterward I worried that I would not be able to father children.
It was around this time that I read in a magazine called Inside Kung Fu about The Wah Lum Temple in Orlando, Florida, a live-in kung fu temple. There was a whole feature in the magazine detailing the place, including rates on tuition if one chose to live there and study. The cost wasn’t much more than college tuition at an in-state four-year college. I could live at the school and learn northern style praying mantis kung fu. “Absolutely not,” my father told me one afternoon when I pitched attending the kung fu temple, which I really wanted to do, versus going to college, which I wasn’t sure about. My goal, I explained to my father, was to learn and master the Wah Lum system, the northern style praying mantis form being but one of many that fell under the Shaolin umbrella. By now the old man’s eyes had glazed over as no doubt white noise flooded his ears as visions of me wandering the country barefoot like David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine in the television series Kung Fu and generally tarnishing the O’Brien family name filled his head. When I had learned enough, I planned to return to New Jersey to open a martial arts academy. I might even choose somewhere far from home, I said, maybe even Mars when I was older like him. My father wouldn’t hear any more of it. He must have thought I was on drugs. In the end he said he’d help me out with college tuition, but that was it. The Wah Lum Temple in Orlando was out.
A year later, my college prospects were not so good. In high school I was a daydreamer. I also cut class so often that my father had to visit the school for a conference. Ultimately, he didn’t live long enough to help me with college tuition, even at the local community college. He got sick. Cancer, it was. Once he learned he had only so long to live my father worried about the future with him absent from it. He suggested I join the military to pay for college. “You can’t sit around and do nothing,” he told me. I joined the army. The infantry paid the biggest bonus, so I signed up for that. I saved some of my pay in the Army College Fund which was matched by the army and the government. I forgot about martial arts, and I started writing. After the army, college followed. Decades passed. I am older now than my father was when he died. Some days I still daydream, often about Mars and that day in late May when I was in Miss Wolverton’s kindergarten class at Yorkship Elementary School, the day the schoolyard turned into the red planet. I should have kept a souvenir, some Martian artifact just to prove that I had been there.
Richard J. O’Brien lives in New Jersey and teaches part-time at Stockton University. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Richard’s stories and poems have appeared in Pulp Literature, Slipstream, and others. His novels include The Last Days of Iggy Scanlon and Rejoice for the Dead. In early 2022, Requia Studios optioned Richard’s feature screenplay The 9th Messiah and Red Lake, a limited sci-fi series.
Sarah Eckstine is a photographer from Western Maryland who received her BFA from The Maryland Institute College of Art in 2020. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Illinois State University. Her work has been exhibited in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts annual photography exhibition where she received the 2nd Place Juror’s Award in 2021, New York Center for Photographic Arts, Midwest Center for Photography, as well as many shows on MICA’s campus, including a two-person collaborative show “Knock Me Down,” MICA’s Juried Undergraduate Show 2017 and 2018, and a solo show “Crosses Across America” in 2020. She has been published in Shots Magazine, Bullshit Lit, Able Zine, fifth wheel press, and Soft Lightning Studio.