The locker room at the Michigan Air Base had always smelled faintly of the polish they used to scrub up their boots, and also the detergent available from the stores that made the uniforms stiff and starchy. Why the familiar smell occurred so poignantly to Carter on the day of his discharge, he couldn’t say. He knew full well that it would be the last time he saw this space. He had known full well beforehand that this would be the last time that he dressed here. Carter looked around. The room was deserted. The rest of his squadron were showering, and the other members of 288 Unit were off duty.
Not all discharges from the Air Force were dishonourary, as Carter had once thought. It seemed that when the time came for the individual to request a transfer, or another organisation or arm of government secured your services, as was the case with him, then there was also a procedure that involved you being discharged from the service. It basically meant that all the strict bonds of discipline that had been placed on him in this place were removed, all the requirements and regimes could be forgotten, and all the security measures taken to monitor and protect him would be cancelled. He was no longer a pilot. It was less of a discharge, and more of a farewell to the wings he had served for ten years. His superiors told him, earlier, that he had lasted well. Those who survived rarely served much longer than eight or nine years as an active member of a squadron, before packing it in, or joining NASA or another service. Perhaps for that reason, his forthcoming departure was to be marked. There was going to be a drinks party that evening, with him the guest of honour, with all his glory in the medals of service pinned to his lapel. He was dreading it already. All that remained beforehand was to sign off.
Carter buttoned his shirt, slowly passing each metal stud through its respective hole. That afternoon and that night would be his last in this uniform for some years. Perhaps in later life he would wear it as a decorated war hero, showing off his medals and talking in a cracked, brash way, of how things were harder in the olden days and how the young kids had it easy. The thought made him want to burn the thing when he took it off, so that this never happened, although that was a punishable offence.
He was 33. It was not the time to be thinking about shit like that.
Carter wasn’t sure what to expect from his upcoming career with NASA. As a kid, he had often stargazed and wondered what it would be like to go up there and look around. He had even been taken to see Buzz Aldrin at a book-signing in Detroit. But never had he entertained the thought of truly becoming a spaceman. Such a future was surely beyond him. Now though, now he was being given the chance to touch the stars. It was what every pilot at some stage aspired to do, from the first test flight to the last parade. To join those brave few who touched the sky and had gone beyond. But he still wasn’t sure. He had received many slaps on the back and envious glares from the other pilots. That alone should have been enough to let him know he was headed in the right direction. Maybe the second divorce had shaken him. Maybe he didn’t want to make any important decisions in case they led him down a questionable path again.
At 15:00 hours he reported to the office of Flight Commander General Harry Lienheim and rapped sharply on the door. There was the customary grunt and he entered.
“Carter, have a seat.” The Flight Commander pointed and he sat, removing his uniform cap, while Lienheim got up from behind his desk. He paused at a small drinks cabinet.
“A drink, son? Off duty now, eh, you can do what you likes. See anything you want?”
“Just water, sir, thanks.”
“Here y’are.” Lienheim placed a plastic cup in front of him on the desk, and Carter took a sip. It was lukewarm and metallic on his tongue.
“Now, Lieutenant, I got your file here. As you know, you’ve been invited to join our friends at NASA in their little Nevada station on something called Recruitment Programme 8J. I gather you’ve been informed about all this?”
“Great, I can skip this. Okay!” Lienheim flipped a page over in the file, “You are required to give your signature to confirm that you wish to take up this opportunity and leave the Air Base. You are also to confirm that your name be kept on our records as a reserve to be contacted when necessary. You are required to surrender all USAF aircraft equipment, emblems, flight recorders and other such things, which I gather you’ve done as well. Good! You are thereby expected at an induction to take place a week from now at the Nevada Air Base, where the guys from NASA have set up. Transport will be sent for you. They will make contact, and I’m not certain when, so stay vigilant. And, Carter, you are expected to be here at 21:00 tonight. Ten years service deserves a little something with alcohol in it, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes…” Lienheim let the word hang. The man in charge of Unit 288 had always been a good boss, provided you stayed on his good side. In all his time at the Air Base, Carter had quickly learned ways to do this. The man tended to like being the centre of attention, and preferred for understudies not to say too much, at least when in his presence. Carter remembered one particularly literate young man who tried to engage the Flight Commander in conversation one evening, and found himself the next day scrubbing toilets. He could be a hard man to know for the unwary.
“The rest of 288 will be there, including your men,” Lienheim continued, consulting a list on his desk, “And you have a plus-one. So you can bring your lady along, if you like?”
“Katy and I are no longer together, sir. Few years now.”
“Ah, a shame. A lovely girl. Oh well. Nothing more glamorous to the ladies than a big old spaceman in a jumpsuit, eh? Soon you’ll be earning a bundle and have a whole lot of time to enjoy yourself, come to that. Of course, NASA procedure is another thing altogether, that’ll take you some getting used to. I remember it now, son. The first day on the job. My station was Texas, you see. I’d never been so far from home, Maine. It was a whole other world out there, Carter. And I remember the first thing they ever taught me was to follow their procedure. When all else failed, follow their set procedure. There are some things that you just can’t do, son, some things that just won’t sit right with them. Especially with this new guy at the helm, Harvey Junior. You take my advice, Carter, and you follow their procedure, and I promise you that it will be an interesting and enjoyable career.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Lienheim smiled briefly and looked back down at the papers on his desk. Aware that he was being dismissed, Carter took up his cap. He didn’t stand though, until Lienheim jerked his head. As he approached the door, there was another grunt. He turned back.
“One more thing, Carter. Got a message the other day from a couple of dignitaries; wanted someone to deliver a number of sensitive packages for them. Looks a cinch, couple of kilos of government equipment, some of it quite sensitive, so needs careful handling. I’d do it myself and all, but I’m too busy to run my own little personal courier service. Wondering if you were interested? Boy’s willing to pay through the nose for an experienced pilot.”
“I’d be happy to, sir,” Carter answered, although he wasn’t.
“Great, I knew we could count on you. Here’s the number of the guy, put it in your phone. I’ll let him know your details and particulars, because I’m such a nice guy. Still throwing work your way, huh, and you being only a reserve now, and all. Aren’t I a nice boss?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Carter saluted smartly, the sheaf of paper with the phone number clasped in his other hand behind his back. He opened the door to the office, and just as he was stepping into the corridor, he heard the voice once more.
“Been a pleasure, Lieutenant.”
Carter turned up to the drinks party that night at the office sobered by the thought of the dignitaries and their so-called ‘sensitive packages;’ to the point where he had almost forgotten that his future lay with NASA. He had been calling around a few estate agents, asking about properties in Nevada, but not in Vegas or Reno, with minimal success. He figured he would look when he arrived, or simply stay on the barracks. It was 21:00 on the dot when Carter knocked on the door to the Flight Commander’s office, and a raucous cheer greeted his entry.
It was a small affair, with only the pilots from his squadron, and a few others from his Unit, along with a couple of Lieutenant Commanders he knew by sight and the Flight Commander himself, swigging a bottle of whisky. Carter found it difficult to enjoy himself, surrounded by so many familiar faces for the last time, but without the chance to properly speak to any of them over the hubbub. He settled for a few glasses of the whisky, straining his ears to listen to what the other pilots were shouting. Some of the wives and partners of his colleagues showed up a little later, and they seemed eager to talk to him. Carter remembered one of them suggesting they sneak off somewhere while her boyfriend was dealing cards, but nothing had happened. He hadn’t felt like it. By midnight, the atmosphere had fizzled out, and Carter seemed like the only one who had failed to enjoy himself. He stood in the doorway, and shook the hands of each man as they left, saluted Lienheim, who returned it clumsily, and smiled at the women. Soon, they were all gone, and he could hear them outside, tipsily looking for their cars and trying to find keys in handbags. Fifteen minutes passed before the building was silent again. Carter closed and locked the door of Lienheim’s office, left the key in the stores, before walking out into the night, his coat covering the uniform and the medals.
The rest of the men had left. There were a few shards of glass where someone, likely the Flight Commander, had broken a bottle on the sidewalk. Carter paused to kick a large shard repeatedly, watching it spin on the concrete, catching sparkles from the searchlight on the field. It was another part of his life over, and another part that was beginning. He had found himself feeling oddly sentimental on the walk to his 4x4 down the road, alone and possibly more drunk than he had first realised. Carter thought of Katy, whom he had promised never to see again, and wondered what she would be doing at that moment. Likely snorting some foul substance and shacking up with a dealer. Deeming this unpleasant, he then turned his thoughts to Jasmine, and realised that she would probably be doing the same. In the end, Carter thought about Oliver, his deceased cousin, the reason why he had joined the Air Force in the first place. He remembered going to university with him in Scotland, and the RAF Training Course they had gone on. He remembered Oliver making the decision to join the RAF, and seeing him between periods of service. He recalled when, in his final year of university, he had received the news that Oliver had been killed in action over Bosnia, and how Brian had howled himself to sleep that night, and broken a window in anger. That time, that notion, that he had joined up with the USAF in some attempt to avenge his cousin’s death, that was over. He had taken the benefits and furthered his career. Had he done his cousin proud? Well, he had always done his best, and he reckoned Oliver would have appreciated it.
That was an odd night in Carter’s memory. What thoughts and feelings overtook him, he was unsure. He knew from a receipt he found a week later when arriving in Nevada that he had checked into a motel near the Air Base for when he was done leaving, but never slept there. He had awoken the next day back in his parent’s house in Greenbury Park. The drive there must have been a risky one, because Carter remembered very little of it. It was a journey of almost seventy kilometres, with a stretch on the Interstate, and had he been pulled over by a traffic cop, he would have been arrested. Carter vaguely recalled deciding on where to go unanimously, but for no reason in particular. The next thing he knew, he was outside that old house, that familiar façade, in Greenbury Park, where his childhood years had ebbed and flowed. He had had a key and let himself in, but he was sure his parents had both been asleep. They took meds, and couldn’t stay up later than ten anymore.
What he remembered doing was closing the door quietly, as if he had snuck in from a late night out with his friends, and crept into the living room, where he had pulled a blanket from off of the back of the sofa. Then he had wrapped it around himself and lay there, in the musty darkness, breathing the familiar dust motes and odours. He hadn’t been able to sleep. He had felt nauseous. At one point, he had found the television remote, and flicked on a repeat of The Jerry Springer Show. Then he must have passed out, because when he awoke it was dawn, and the television screen was fuzzy with static. While he had been asleep, his mother had come in and had fallen asleep beside him, one arm in it’s pink nightdress around his waist. It was a moment, Carter knew, where he should have felt comfortable. A time where he should have felt as if he had come home after a long time away.
But in a way, he knew he was kidding himself. The stages of his life had passed away under him and marked him such that the old house in Greenbury Park, while familiar, did not feel like home anymore. It was the place where his mother and father lived, for more than thirty years. In the attic somewhere, was a box stuffed full of his old toys and books and games. His old bedroom, now refurbished, was up there too. He had spent years of his life in this abode, days at weekends playing computer games, hours after school with his mates and his mom, nights at high-school when his gang came round for insane parties and other events that went down in his history. But it was all in the past. His home, now, was NASA. It was the only place now where he would feel right. The paths of succession in his life had turned him into something like a migrating herd mammal; constantly on the move from one home to the next. And while returning to a former habitat was not out of the question, it was not favourable either.
He had left that morning without saying goodbye, although he did leave a note at the last minute for his mother, to explain. The next time he saw the house in Greenbury Park, his dad had died.