Many people reading this are aware that I have an interest in the 1960s era Apollo space program. I probably have 25 or 30 books on the subject and have read an equal number more. One of them that I own is Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On the Moon. It’s in paperback, of course.
A month or so ago I was in a bookstore and saw a book called Moonfire credited to Norman Mailer. It turned out that some people took a selection of Mailer’s words from the earlier book and added a bunch of pictures. What hooked me wasn’t the writing – I already had that – but the pictures. Many of them have not been seen before, even by aficionados such as me. So now I’m reading Mailer again.
Mailer’s writing is like nothing else I’ve read on the moon program. He is intensely interested in the astronauts as men but not in the sense of what so many were writing in the newspapers and magazines of the day. The pictures give a reminder of that, as many of them are staged shots done for Life Magazine whose mission it was to make heroes of the astronauts. See Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff for more on that. Mailer is interested in drilling down to the core of their being.
One of his paragraphs struck me as funny given that my career has been dealing with amplified sound in theaters. Check this out:
. . . They are in a modern movie theater with orange seats and a dark furrowed ceiling overhead, much like marcelled waves in a head of hair, a plastic ceiling built doubtless to the plans of one of the best sound engineers in the country. Sound is considerably ahead of smell as a fit province for scientific work, but since the excellence of acoustics in large and small concert chambers seem to bear more relation to old wood and the blessings of monarchs and bishops than to the latest development of the technical art, the sound system in this movie theater (seats 600) is dependably intolerable most of the time. The public address system squeals and squeaks (it is apparently easier to have communication with men one quarter of a million miles away) and one never gets a fair test of the aural accommodations, and so far as one can tell, the tone is a hint sepulchral, then brightened electronically, finally harsh and punishing to that unnamed fine nerve that runs from the anus to the eardrum. As the sound engineers became more developed, the plastic materials provided for their practice by corporations grew acoustically more precise and spiritually more flattening – it was the law of the century. One was forever adjusting to public voices through the subtlest vale of pain.
Perhaps ironic is a better word than funny, because sound systems have improved a great deal in the intervening time, while space travel has stagnated in Low Earth Orbit.