(I am publishing the current book I am working on, The Wonderful Land of Eden, here at this blog. Here is the opening chapter.)
One of Our Own
I go back and forth. I want to tell everybody everything. Then I don’t want to tell anybody anything. I like to think other people feel this way, but I have my doubts.
These are things I haven’t told anybody about.
My life from about the age of seventeen to the present is fairly well chronicled. In my own books, magazine stories, interviews, tabloids, and writers’ conference talks—most of the last 25 years of my life has spewed out for public consumption. I don’t want to say any more about that right now. Too much has been said already.
So this will be about my childhood. My earliest clear memory is of myself at the age of three. I’m going to start there and end at the point when I met Teddy Hatter when I was 16. Then everybody will know everything. Or think they will.
Some of these memories are fleeting and their descriptions will be brief. Some are as clear as yesterday (even clearer) and I’ll give these in all their glorious or gory detail.
I’ll try to be chronological, but I promise nothing. Except that they’ll be my memories. No one else should be held accountable. I take full responsibility.
I’ll close this chapter with some words about Teddy and Ralph and me. Mostly about Ralph. People who’ll bother to read this already know about the three of us, small town North Carolina boys who went on to become a rock star, an astronaut, and a writer. That last 25 years I mentioned earlier.
I’ve thought at times that some of that attention we got paid to us was nothing more than the baby boomer generation congratulating itself on the fruition of its dreams. Teddy got to be a Beatle. Ralph got to be John Glenn. I wound up some weird combination of Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson.
Ralph. Ralph was the good guy. Went to college, did ROTC, graduated and got his commission in the U.S. Air Force. Did a brief stint in Vietnam and came back unscarred, as best I could tell. Got into the astronaut program. Flew a space shuttle. Jesus. Pretty impressive stuff.
Had to give it up when his eyes went a little. Then had this job he loved doing P.R. for NASA and giving speeches all over the place to remind people about the wonder of space.
This was the watershed year for Teddy, Ralph and me. This was the year we would turn forty. Teddy reached the big 4-0 November a year ago. I got there this past August.
Ralph didn’t make it. On February 17, 88 days before his 40th birthday, Ralph’s plane went down in the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia. He was en route from Savannah to Huntsville, Alabama on a speaking tour to promote some new NASA project.
Ralph wasn’t flying the plane. It was a commercial jet. If Ralph had been flying, they’d damn well have made it.
I’d just come in from some local watering hole (I live and teach in Chapel Hill when I’m not lollygagging somewhere or other for The New Yorker or Rolling Stone). I flipped on the television and some plastic anchorwoman was saying cheerily, “Astronaut dies in plane crash in Georgia swamp” — and the phone rang. It was Valerie. All she said was, “Oh Charlie….”
The next week sort of swirls together and I can’t order events in my mind very well. Two things stand out in my memory. One is Teddy Hatter showing up at Valerie and Ralph’s house in a black Porsche 959 that we later drove down Daytona Beach at a terrifying speed. The other is a headline from a local paper that was lying open on the kitchen counter:
One of Our Own is Gone
I got famous chronicling my friends’ lives—Teddy’s excesses in the name of rock and roll, Ralph’s adventures kissing the sky. I’ve had the life of a writer, who, as Goethe sagely noted, spends more time observing life than living it.
For Ralph’s sake, I hope I’ve observed the right things.