Not thinking ’bout tomorrow…



Astronaut (Ret.) Richard “Mike” Mullane

© copyright 2017 by Richard M. Mullane

And we were trying different things
We were smoking funny things
Making love out by the lake to our favorite song
Sipping whiskey out the bottle, not thinking ’bout tomorrow
Singing Sweet home Alabama all summer long….  ‘All Summer Long’ by Kid Rock

It’s a great song.  But I always experience a pang of regret, when I hear the lyrics….not thinking ‘bout tomorrow. I wistfully imagine how delicious such a moment would be…an utterly-selfish immersion in only the present, with not a care about what tomorrow might bring.

In my entire adult life, I can’t recall ever having such a moment.  Certainly, it never occurred in my four years at West Point.  There, the responsibilities of tomorrow loomed like the maw of a T-Rex.  And they didn’t end at graduation.  Of course, I thought they did.  With one hand clutching a diploma and the other swinging my cadet wheel-hat high into the sky, I could only see an infinite series of carefree sunrises and sunsets awaiting me.
I was free!  Free!  FREE, from thinking ‘bout tomorrow!!!  And it tasted oh, so sweet.  Though I didn’t yet know it, that freedom would end exactly one week later, when I said to the love of my life, “I do,” and slipped the ring on her finger.  I had assumed all the responsibilities of a husband.  Still, I was blind to what that really meant.  Life was glorious and it would remain that way forever.  A passage from my memoir, Riding Rockets, says it all,

A small cinder-block house on Mather AFB in Sacramento, California, was our first home.  While we waited for our few possessions to catch up, we enjoyed Uncle Sam’s furniture.  We sat on metal folding chairs and ate our meals off a card table and made love on a one-man canvas cot.  It was the richest we’ve ever been. We had each other and that was all we needed.

How sweet.  How quaint.  How naive! Even during that romantic love-making, Donna was already well advanced in her pregnancy.  Nine months after our nuptials, she delivered a set of boy-girl twins and any hope of ever experiencing a moment of not thinking ‘bout tomorrow was obliterated with thermonuclear thoroughness. At age twenty-two I had three lives that depended upon how well I prepared for the remaining tomorrows of my life.  (Three years later, another daughter would make it four lives.) There would never be a day off.  What about when the kids were finally on their own, you ask?  Trust me.  There’s NEVER a time at which you will think, “Mabel, the kids are finally gone.  For the rest of our days, we can relax and watch the purple unicorns dance among the rainbows.”  BS! Even when the children fly the nest, you will continue to worry about their tomorrows.  Is their marriage going to endure?  Are they saving enough? Will their jobs be secure?  Do they have enough life insurance?  Health insurance?  Will their health remain good?  Will they ever give us grandchildren?

Then, when they do give you those grandkids, you get slammed with another generational wave of tomorrows to worry about.  Are the kids saving enough for their children’s education?  What if they lose their job? What if they come back to live with us!?  The kids aren’t raising their children right!  Oh my God, the grand-kids are driving?  Are they safe?  Dating, already?  I don’t want to think about it.  Are they making good choices?

It’s a strange feeling.  If asked, I wouldn’t change anything about my life; certainly, not my decisions to marry early and immediately have children.  My wife, children and grandchildren (six) have brought me immense happiness.  I can’t imagine a life without them.  Nevertheless, it is a teasing fantasy to imagine enjoying a moment of adulthood in which I could be free of all responsibility and the associated need to think, plan and worry about tomorrow.

My three children experienced it.  None of them married early (and marriage, as we all know, is typically our first acquisition of huge responsibility). They all had a chapter in their early adult lives, where they could sip whisky out the bottle (or do other things I don’t want to know about) and not think about tomorrow. I vividly recall the moment in my son’s life, when he drove away from our Albuquerque home to his first Air Force duty station.  I said to Donna, “Can you imagine being that free?  His entire life is in the trunk of the car.”  In the silence that followed, I know she was enjoying that vision, as much as me.  Then, we turned back to our house and walked inside to pay bills. Like it or not, our tomorrows loomed.

Paradoxically, the moment in my life where I was most free of the responsibilities of husband and father, was at age twenty-four, during my 1969 tour in Vietnam. There, my world contracted into a single purpose…plan, execute, debrief missions, repeat. There were no bills to pay, snotty noses to wipe, diapers to change, compromises to make, arguments to settle, pediatrician appointments to deal with.  If I had been kidnapped by aliens, I could not have been more removed from those domestic responsibilities.  There was no emailing or skyping or calling.  I was free.  Of course, Donna paid a huge price for that ‘freedom’.  You can bet she was thinking about tomorrow, with the foremost thought being, What happens if he doesn’t come home?  How will I raise these twins?

But the freedom from life’s responsibilities that comes with being immersed in war, obviously isn’t freedom at all.  It’s certainly not what I’m talking about in this blog.  No. Freedom is what the college coed is living, as she tours Europe on a bike or the young man experiences while crewing a sailboat to the South Pacific.

So, what’s the lesson of these musings?  Just this…and it’s for all you driven, goal-focused, young men and women reading this.  In other words, it’s for all the Mike Mullanes out there (including some of my grandchildren).  Your unfettered youth is perishable.  Certainly, your education should be the number one priority in your lives, for nothing will serve you better in the future.  But, while completing that education, take a brief moment to savor the freedom of young adulthood.  It doesn’t have to be the European bike tour or sailing experience.  There are plenty of other (and less expensive) ways to indulge yourself in that sweet garden of no responsibilities…paint a landscape, run a marathon, climb a mountain, do some greeting-card ‘crafting’ (Donna’s escape), learn fly-fishing, read a dozen books, write a book, take a photography lesson or do any of the other things your selfish inner-spirit craves. Soon enough, you’ll be a clone of my wife or me watching your son or daughter drive away with their entire life in the trunk of the car and wistfully dreaming, I wonder what that feels like…to not be thinking ‘bout tomorrow?


Risk: Rockets vs. Donuts

Several years ago, after my annual NASA physical exam, the doctor gave me a very definitive number on my risk of staying alive for the next decade, or at least of staying alive in a condition of reasonably good health. Specifically, he said, I have an 8.2 percent risk of suffering a major cardiac event (as in stroke or heart attack) sometime in the next 10 years. He had arrived at that figure after a computer had number-crunched my risk factors, i.e., lipid measurements, age, gender, race, and family history. The latter is bad. My paternal grandfather died at age 65; my father at age 66. Believe me, it’s scary when you find yourself as a patriarchal record setter at age 67. The doc gave me this news with some gravitas, which he must have quickly sensed, for then he breezily added, “Or, another way we can look at this data is to say you have a 91.8 percent chance of NOT having a major cardiac event in the next decade.” Wow! That sounds a lot better!

As I walked form the office, I considered the number. I won’t lie. It bothered me. It particularly bothered me since I had recently returned from the Mayo Clinic after having visited my former West Point roommate (and best man at my wedding) in his last days of life. That was quickly followed by news of the death of another of my classmate groomsmen. In my wedding album is a photo (posted here) of four of us West Pointers with upraised glasses in a wedding toast. Our smiles are incandescent; our hair, though cut military-short, is still solidly rooted in place; our faces unlined; our eyes bright and clear. It is a photo which thoroughly captures the ruddy good health of the young. Now, I’m the sole survivor of that group, the other groomsman depicted, Mike Parr, having been KIA in Vietnam not long after the photo was taken. It’s photos like this that slap you awake to the limited sand remaining in your hourglass of life.

Then, an ironic laugh came to me. At age 32, as I was being announced as a newly selected astronaut, if somebody had whispered to me that I had just entered a profession which had an 8.2 percent chance of killing me, it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. Seriously, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. I always assumed the chances of death by shuttle were MUCH higher.

As it turned out, the chances for the TFNG Mission Specialists (my title) were exactly 15 percent. There were twenty of us with that MS title and three of that group died on Challenger (Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair). Actually, it was a 14.3 percent risk for the fourteen male MSs (two of 14 males perished). At first glance, you would think the odds for the six female TFNGs would have been one in six or 16.7 percent which happens to be the exact odds of dying while playing Russian roulette with a six shot revolver. But actually, there were only five TFNG women who could have been selected for the mission. Sally Ride would never have been in the running. NASA would not have wanted the press focusing on any woman other than school teacher Christa McAuliffe and Sally’s celebrity would have dimmed Christa’s spotlight. So, Sally most certainly was never considered for that flight, leaving a pool of only five TFNG women from which to select a companion for Christa. So the odds for a female TFNG to have been on the fateful mission were one in five or 20 percent. Judy Resnik was the casualty in that roulette of fate.

Would it have mattered to Judy, Ellison, Ron, Dick Scobee or the other members of the crew, if they had known at their selection the odds of dying on a shuttle mission would be in this range of numbers? Would it have mattered to any astronaut of any class?

I can’t speak for others, but I can unequivocally say, “No!” for myself. It would not have mattered. That’s not to suggest I was fearless on my three missions. Quite the contrary. As I watched those stick-figures on the countdown clock doing their digital dance into single digits, I was beyond fearful. I was terrified. Yet, I could no more have walked away from a shuttle mission than a migratory animal can ignore the turn of the seasons. That’s probably the best explanation as to why there’s such an extreme difference in how I reacted to the 8.2 percent risk number the doc gave me, versus the higher risk of being a TFNG astronaut. While the finality of death is the same, be it result of the shuttle or a bacon cheeseburger, I was doing what I HAD to do when I strapped into the shuttle. I didn’t have a choice.

I have often explained this ability to accept the extreme risk of a shuttle mission by using the Mt. Everest climbers as an analog. In their treks, I imagine them confronting the memorials to preceding climbers who have perished during their climbs and experiencing the fearful image of themselves buried under the next pile of ice covered rock. But still, they press on. Why? For the same reason I could have never turned away from a shuttle mission. There is a fear in those climbers’ souls that is far greater than fear of death. It’s the fear of not reaching the top of that mountain. For astronauts the “top of the mountain” is a thundering shuttle ride into earth orbit. NOT making that trip was more fearful than the extreme fear of dying in the attempt. I suspect most astronauts are driven by the same reason. For us, the need to make the mission is an instinct as primordial as taking a breath. There’s no OFF switch for this need.

No, I can’t imagine any risk number, whispered into my ear at my astronaut christening, which would have deterred me from continuing my NASA career.

So, why the worry at the 8.2 percent number? I think it’s the brutal awareness of mortality that comes with age. If forewarned in my teen youth that a steady diet of hamburgers, French fries and chocolate shakes would put me at an 8.2 percent risk of a “major cardiac event” in my seventh decade of life, could I have walked away from those cholesterol bullets? Not a chance. No teen can comprehend the word mortal. “I’ll never be old”, is their belief system. How about later in life, say at age 40, would the warning of an 8.2 percent risk of a major cardiac event motivated me to set aside the beer and pizza? Again, not a chance. At that age I was an active astronaut facing what I considered (and what proved to be) a greater risk to my life. You might as well have told a GI in a landing craft, racing to the shores of Normandy, that the cigarette he was smoking would ultimately be a serious risk to his life and expect to see him flip it overboard. Nope. Not going to happen. In my active astronaut career, after hearing the doc’s 8.2 percent number, I would have stopped at the vending machine for a Ding Dong on my way back to my office.

No, it could only be that getting the news in my autumn (winter?) years of life, where I no longer had an umbrella of greater risk to hide under, that the 8.2 percent could scare me. And it did. But I grasped at the straw…I can do something about this risk! After all, it wasn’t like the space shuttle. I didn’t have a primal instinct to eat donuts. I can walk away from those and the hamburgers and the ice cream. Sure, I can.

Damn! Those airport Cinnabons sure smell good. I should ask if they have any with statin sprinkles on top.