It seems as if we have a helium balloon somewhere in the house half the time. It may be a dead mylar skin crumpled under a dresser like something shed by a molting soap balloon. Or it’s a sagging bag bobbing on the floor in Gnat’s room. But we have a balloon somewhere. You go to a kid’s party, you bring back a balloon. You go to the circus, you bring back a balloon. You go visit someone in the hospital, you bring back a balloon, if you pass a room and the door’s open and the guy’s sleeping, and he’s, like, hooked up to so much stuff he’s probably not going to miss it. What the hell, take the flowers too.

Currently we have a Pooh balloon; it was in the basement for a while, hanging against a wall like a trophy - let me tell you the day I bagged the largest spermatozoa on earth, friend. Then Gnat brought it upstairs, and it floated around the dining room for a while. Then it migrated into the kitchen - I’d come around the corner and find it hovering by the kitchen island. It bothered me, the way it skulked around, so I put it in the bathroom off the kitchen. And there it plotted and sulked for a few days. Now it’s down at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for someone to close a door and give it the push it’ll need to float upstairs. Why there? Because balloons are stupid. It never occurs to them to make for the door - they know only UP, so they figure that the road to liberation looks exactly like a flight of stairs.

Once upstairs, it will probably make it to Gnat’s bathroom, and see the skylight, and float up - up - up to the bright blue beyond, and then it will shrink back in horror, for stuck up in the skylight is the withered husk of another balloon. It’s like the skeleton -with-a-pith-helmet that makes the adventurer feel the clammy hand of dread against their throat.

Everytime I pass the balloon in the hall, I smirk: go for it.


Saturday, of course, was horrible. I found out about the disaster by unusual means - I’d been up for a while, read the papers, but hadn’t checked the news; Gnat was watching something on TV, got bored, and said: “That’s enough TV.” She turned on her computer; I did the same.

Instapundit is my homepage, and that’s where I read the news: the shuttle is overdue. That could only have meant one thing. It’s not an Amtrak train. It’s not a car stuck in traffic. It was gone and they were dead. I turned on the TV, and called my friend the Giant Swede; he saw caller ID and knew exactly what I was calling about. We talked about it without saying anything, because there’s nothing to say but you have to say it all anyway.

The rest of the day I listened to the radio. NPR had an interview with one of those people who think we should not send people into space, but rely entirely on robots. As I pulled into the parking lot at the mall he casually asked “what can a man do on Mars that a robot cannot?”

PLANT A FUCKING FLAG ON THE PLANET, I shouted at the radio. Pardon my language. But. On a day when seven brave people died while fulfilling their brightest ambitions, this was the wrong day to suggest we all stay tethered to the dirt until the sun grows cold. Are we less than the men who left safe harbors and shouldered through cold oceans? After all, they sailed into the void; we can look up at the night sky and point at where we want to go. There: that bright white orb. We’re going. There: that red coal burning on the horizon. We’re going. And we’re not sending smart toys on our behalf - we’re sending human beings, and one of them will put his boot on the sand and bring the number of worlds we’ve visited to three. And when he plants the flag he will use flesh and sinew and blood and bone to drive it into the ground. His heartbeat will hammer in his ears; his mind will spin a kaleidoscopic medley of all the things he’d thought he’d think at this moment, and he'll grin: I had it wrong. I had no idea what it would truly be like. He’d imagined this moment as oddly private; he'd thought of himself, the red land, the flag in his hand, and he heard music, as though the moment would be fully scored when it happened. But there isn't any music; there's the sound of his breath and the thrum of his pulse
. It seems like everyone who ever lived is standing behind him at the other end of a vast dark auditorium, waiting for the flag to stand on the ground of Mars. Then he will say something. He might stumble on a word or two, because he’s only human.

But look what humans have done. Again.


Saturday night I wanted to watch a movie that was the exact opposite of the day’s bad news, so I watched K-19, a film about the first Soviet nuclear sub’s maiden voyage. It had gotten mixed reviews - some didn’t like it, others were indifferent. I recall no one liking it very much. Having seen it, I wonder again if they saw the same movie I did, and the answer was no; I saw it at home by the fire with a nice scotch, and the critics probably saw it in a cold theater at 10 AM. Harrison Ford’s accent comes and goes, and he plays the role of the ship’s captain in his patented Steely Scowl of Unimpeachable Integrity mode, but as long as he’s not running around a desert island with Anne Heche I’ll watch Indy in anything. Perhaps I enjoyed the movie because it’s set in a Soviet boat c. 1960s, and that’s an era and venue that has a strange allure for me. Like many Russophiles, I have this odd knotty reaction: because the Soviet tyranny was so costly to Russia, you must deplore it, but . . . well, the nature of the Soviet regime was distinctly Russian, after all. On one hand, Turgenev. On the other, drunken brutal incompetence. The movie took a clever tack - as the crew deals with the perils their slipshod masters have dealt them, you bond with the crew and unite with them against those fools in Moscow.

But the crew’s job was to nuke New York.

Well, let bygones be bygones, I always say. It does raise an interesting point, though - how many cultures make movies celebrating the courage and dogged ingenuity of their old foes? I can understand a German making Das Boot, but for an American to make a movie that takes the struggle of K-19’s crew to survive and casts it in heroic terms is . . . is . . . what’s the word I’m looking for?


No, that’s not it, but it’s close. Someday someone will do an exhaustive study of American movies about the Soviets. According to many films, we hated the sin but loved Comrade Sinner, and I think the reason is clear: The Soviets just didn’t make very good Nazis. As portrayed, top Soviet military leaders always had a soulful Slavic shrug with a faint world-weary smile, and when they said they would have to consult their goovarment, we knew they meant a dozen gouty drunks, not a ranting madman whose upper lip set the mustache margins too tight. Their soldiers were usually portrayed as too young and too thin and, we suspected, very curious about this land of Playboy magazine and Roke end Rull. The Nazis were the brutal Killbots from the Planet Hitler; the Soviets we allowed a certain amount of humanity.

Again, I’m talking about how they’re portrayed in movies. I don’t think that American filmmakers over the years have sought the humanity in the adversary because they secretly side with Bolshevism, as some might suggest. It’s the lure of the Russian character as we seem to define it - rash, sullen, romantic, effusive, violent, introspective, depressed, gorgeous and fiery and wintry and mad.

We’ve all dated someone like that.

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