Copyright 2021 by Astronaut Richard ‘Mike’ Mullane, all rights reserved.
2020 started as all New Years do…with resolutions that THIS will finally be the year we will exercise more, lose weight, finish that novel, etc. Little did we realize, as the last notes of Auld Lang Syne were fading, we would soon be denied that old, reliable resolution killer, “I don’t have enough time. I’ll do it later.” We were going to have a LOT of time.
It seems insane now, but in late February astronaut John Creighton and I attended the 30th anniversary of our STS-36 mission. The risk of Covid was yet to be fully appreciated, so we joined a hundred other attendees and their spouses in a southern California hotel that was also hosting student athletes from all over the World. Over the two days of the reunion, we repeatedly waded through scrums of this youthful UN while traveling to and from our reunion ballroom. In that room we were crammed together like a raft of Houston fire ants in a flood…not a mask in sight. And since our gathering consisted of mostly deaf, old men, we shouted in each other’s faces to be heard, painting each other in spittle. How this meeting did not become the first super-spreader event is nothing less than miraculous.
March was to be the last time in 2020 the family would be (almost) fully together. We rendezvoused at a resort in Tucson to celebrate Pat and Mary’s wedding. While the CDC pronouncements on the lethality of the virus were becoming more shrill, we felt the long-planned wedding would be safe. By what logic we justified this belief, I am at a loss to recall. I suspect we, like many citizens, thought the threat was exaggerated, posing no bigger risk than a normal flu. And the thought was reinforced by the fact none of us, and nobody from our wide circle of friends and relatives from all over the country, knew of anybody who had contracted the virus, much less died from it. So, we gathered with two of our three children’s families…Pat’s and Amy’s families. Our granddaughter, Katie, was on a Notre Dame-sponsored French immersion study program, which had just been terminated by the growing pandemic in Europe. Still, we thought it would be safe for her to join us in Tucson. Looking back on it, we were idiots. Donna and I, at the high-risk age of 74, were surrounded not only by our family who had travelled mask-less from multiple locations, but in a hotel that was filled with other vacationing families from all over the US. It was another event which could have ended in disaster, but did not. Nobody contracted the virus.
But by the time we departed the hotel, it was becoming clear that Covid was no normal flu and Governors were ordering various lockdown measures, including restrictions on hotel occupancy. We hugged our grandkids (Pat’s and Amy’s children) goodbye, blind to the fact it was the last time we would see them in 2020.
The resort we departed had a post-apocalyptic feel to it…deserted patio pools and spas, closed restaurants, empty hallways, lobby, and parking lots. I walked from the building clueless of the wealth I was leaving behind…the toilet paper from our rooms. It would soon become the coin of the realm.
(Throughout my life, I have watched countless doomsday movies with scenes of panicked humans confronting alien invasions, nuclear war, pandemics, looming comet and asteroid impacts and myriad other end-of-the-world scenarios. Universally, these movies highlight the collapse of society…citizens tearing each other to pieces over a food item in a looted grocery store, men dragging pregnant women from cars to secure transportation for self-escape, mobs ripping into gun and liquor stores. How wrong were those screen writers! As the Covid pandemic revealed, when humans are faced with apocalyptic extinction, they tear each other apart for…TOILET PAPER!)
By April my business of traveling to speak at various corporate functions had evaporated. I had never heard of Zoom but soon became an expert on that IT platform…as well as the Google Meet, Cisco Webex and Microsoft Teams platforms. I kluged together an office arrangement to participate in virtual speaking events. As part of that effort, I bought a HD camera only to learn at a ‘certain’ age a HD camera is a fearful instrument. I enlisted Donna as my makeup artist. At first, she applied various creams and powders as if she was confronting a woman’s face…a little dab here and a little brush there. Her efforts were laughably inadequate. Eventually, she was troweling layer after layer of clay into the seemingly bottomless craters under my eyes and finding that Este Lauder makes no face powder capable of dimming my sunspot forehead. It was only some weeks later my daughter, Laura, herself now working virtually from home, alerted me to the Zoom slide scale (created by some software programmer, who I intend to nominate for a Nobel Prize) which magically takes years off a face. Gone was any need for makeup. For my Zoom sessions, I set that slide to the ‘young George Clooney’ position, and then prayed I would never meet any of my virtual audience members in the flesh, for they would immediately realize the fraud I had practiced on them.
As many others did in the pandemic, Donna and I embarked on some long-delayed home improvement projects, including refinishing our 90+ year-old oak flooring. (We live in a house constructed in the early 1920’s.)
The flooring redo proved to be an easy project, completed with a check. Not so with having the entire inside house re-painted. We could have hired out someone to move all the furniture, but we feared breakage and other damage, so we did it ourselves. That entailed the serial moving from room-to-room, of what my back tells me were tons of chairs, desks, pictures, sofas, beds, etc.
But the most fearful home project of 2020 was organizing my tool cabinet…or rather my father-in-law’s tool cabinet. At his death, Joe Sei’s cabinet opened into a Narnia world of tools…eight different sized hammers, five different sized pipe wrenches and cutters, multiple chisels, planers, wrenches, screwdrivers, and drills…a tool for every job, tools that pre-dated the age of the house. And the perfect organization of these tools by size and function was a testament to the Sei family’s severe neatness-OCD, a disorder I did not share. Over the years, after using a tool, I would casually toss it back, until the circa 2020 cabinet looked like a hardware store which had been dropped from an airplane. Donna…the god, the king, the president, the grand poobah of neatness…saw the cabinet’s disarray as an oozing pustule, a canker sore, an offense against nature. She repeatedly told me I MUST clean and organize that cabinet, only to be silenced with my rejoinder, “I don’t have the time.” Of course, Covid exploded that excuse. I had all the time in the world. I searched for other excuses, but none could serve to dismiss her order. Finally, with all the enthusiasm of facing a colonoscopy, I set up a table in the garage and emptied the cabinet contents onto it. I stood and stared in a catatonic paralysis. Then, it dawned on me. I had a way out. You don’t live with somebody for 53 years and not learn their every hot button and I pressed one of Donna’s. I turned to her and said, “It’s hopeless.” To utter such a statement about violated neatness to my wife is to dangle red meat in front of a lion. Donna craved millimeter precise organization. A perfect day for her is to stroll the isles of The Container Store. You think I exaggerate? Ha! I can so easily visualize her body-blocking some Buddhist monk into a bonsai bush, grabbing his rake and telling him, “Let me show you how you really rake gravel.”
I absently picked up a tool, looked at it like a monkey examining a vacuum tube, sighed, then returned it to the table. I repeated the move with another tool and a heavier sigh. Donna’s frustration grew. She rocked from foot to foot. I knew she was going to blow at any moment. And she did, “Go to the basement and get me my label maker and a couple cartridges.” At that order, I knew I had escaped the loathsome project. Donna doesn’t un-holster her label maker without the intent of murdering disorganization. I cheerfully returned with the items, grabbed a beer, stood back, and watched the magic. Within an hour she was done, the cabinet appearing as it had under Joe Sei’s exacting standards. I had pulled off the old Tom Sawyer trick of getting somebody else to whitewash the fence.
June 14th marked out 53rd wedding anniversary. Under the Covid restrictions at the time, restaurants could operate at fifty percent of capacity, so we made reservations to celebrate at our favorite eatery. That never happened. As part of an exercise routine, Donna and I were walking a three-mile neighborhood route every morning. Given the hiking I was doing, the walk was a piece of cake for me. But the effort was more problematic for Donna due to her bad knees and arthritis. Still, it had been going well…until it didn’t. At the end of our anniversary morning walk I separated from her to recover a shopping bag that had blown into the yard. I heard a muffled crash, turned, and saw Donna laid out on the street. Her knee had given way and she fell forward, the left side of her face and left hand taking the brunt of the fall. I rushed and pulled her into a sitting position. Blood dripped from her head and nose. Fearing she might have a concussion or other head injury, I told her we had to get to the hospital ASAP, but she resisted. Finally, I snapped a photo of her face and said, “Look!” At the frightful image she relented and I drove her to a nearby hospital. Covid protocol prevented me from staying with her, so we communicated via text messages. There was no concussion, but she had sustained a fractured cheek bone, eye socket and nose. Within a couple hours she was discharged, tattooed with a dozen stitches, and looking like she had gone fifteen rounds with Mohammad Ali. Happy anniversary.
By mid-year we were in full lockdown but still managed some Covid-compliant contact with our youngest daughter, Laura, and her family, including a backyard picnic in Los Alamos. I used my snow shovel to exchange food over the fence. We were learning how to snatch some fun from the jaws of Covid.
We had a brief June visit with Pat and Mary, which included a trip through the San Luiz Valley of Colorado. On any trip through this valley, it is a MUST to stop at the ‘UFO watch tower and museum’ off Highway 17, about 30 miles north of Alamosa. Forget the Hammer Museum (Alaska), the World’s Biggest Ball of Paint (Indiana), and The World’s Largest Non-Stick Frying Pan (Maine). The Highway 17 UFO museum easily captures the title of ‘Most Outrageous Roadside Americana Kitsch’. Mary howled in laughter at her first visit and I imagine that’s a frequent reaction. Picture this: decades of aliens stopping here to clean the crap from under their saucer seats, floor mats and from their ray gun compartments and throwing it onto the naked desert. That’s the museum. Aliens have discarded Ike for President pins, Pez dispensers, rosaries, license plates, expired driver licenses, Altoids, old tennis shoes, and so many other bizarre items that, yes, you can legitimately call this place ‘other worldly.’ Its equal is nowhere to be found on this Earth. There is also a small indoor library containing UFO related literature. I have camped here but, alas, no UFOs disturbed my sleep. That was okay. The view of the night sky is almost as good as from a shuttle window.
This would be the last time in 2020 we would see Mary.
The most memorable moment of our year of Covid was the arrival, in July, of a letter from a man claiming to be Donna’s firstborn son.
My memoir, Riding Rockets, tells the story of Donna’s high school out-of-wedlock pregnancy, isolation at an Alabama Catholic home for unwed mothers and giving up her son for adoption. And I have previously written on Facebook and on my Blog of this 2020 mother-son reconnection, so I will not repeat it here. But I have included a copy of that first contact letter and a photo of her son’s family. It’s a remarkable story, confirmed through DNA testing, and one that brightly penetrated the darkness of Covid. Still, the virus has prevented any type of face-to-face reunion. As I write this, our inoculation should begin in the next couple weeks, which should bring that reunion much closer. But until mother and son are in each other’s arms, the Covid version of the sword of Damocles remains hanging over all of us.
As Laura’s family exposure to Covid was limited, I joined them on their yearly summer backpacking trip into the NM mountains. Laura and husband, Dave, worked from home and their two children were restricted to a tight circle of high school friends. Moreover, the entire Los Alamos county had not recorded a single Covid case in two months. And camping in the wilderness is an ultimate social distancing situation. We hiked and fished in the day. At night we sat around our campfire telling stories and playing card games…all while enjoying Dave’s smores.
Also, in the summer, Pat returned to Albuquerque for a father/son road trip to hike in the Colorado mountains. No doubt you can see a developing theme here…the Mullane’s are the ‘hiking Von Trapp family’, addicted to the mountains and deserts of the Southwest. Pat and I are also aficionados of the counter-culture world of America. We have never driven past a biker-bar. (In this interest, we are alone in the family. Donna and Mary would sooner get a tongue stud than stop at a biker bar.) But it was this call-of-the-social-wild, that prompted us to make our base camp in the very counter-culture village of Crestone, CO. The turnoff from Highway 17 to this town of gurus, crystals, energy vortexes, meditation, and limitless Rocky Mountain highs is marked by two marijuana stores…for a town with a 2018 population of 146 people. Obviously, Crestone, CO is experiencing a glaucoma epidemic.
Bears, deer, rabbits, and elk roam the deserted streets (there are no stoplights). The lodging we secured came with some of the local fauna, as you will see in the attached screen shot. Pat and I howled with laughter at the thought of our wives staying in such a place.
The trip was great fun…if not testimony to why unmarried men die early. When Pat and I are without wives, our diet is abysmal. On one father/son long weekend in Boston the sole source of our nourishment was Coors Light beer and Wheat Thins covered with canned cheese. On that trip Pat finally pleaded, “Dad, you have to leave! I haven’t crapped in three days. I think I have scurvy.” But our Crestone trip showed real progress with our bachelor diet. Instead of the canned cheese, we used real cheese with our crackers.
This would be the last time we would see Pat in 2020.
Amy also broke her Aledo, Texas quarantine and came to Albuquerque for a short visit. Our very thin justification for this violation of Covid protocol was a promise to social distance outdoors as much as possible. It would prove to be the last time we would see Amy in 2020.
I have to give a very loud shout-out to daughter, Amy. She made well use of her Covid lockdown with a daily, multi-mile walking regimen…losing 25+ pounds in the process. As a RA victim (rheumatoid arthritis), this is even much more of an accomplishment. As soon as the pandemic is over, she and I intend to travel north to add some more 14,000 ft peaks to her list. She has summited five in past years. Can’t wait!
As I reviewed what I wrote above, it occurred to me I am going to take some flak from readers for these multiple violations of CDC guidelines. Looking back on it, we were playing with fire and any criticism is justified. At the time, however, it was summer and the virus appeared on the wane (which proved to be a head fake.) Also, at this point in the pandemic the promise of a vaccine was hardly more than a wish. And most on Donna’s and my minds was the fact we were inching toward 75 years of age. The reality we did not have many years left and the thought of indefinite separation from family pushed us over the edge in taking these summer gathering risks. I am sure there are numerous people who exercised the same reasoning and are now counted among the Covid dead. We were lucky.
Covid brought many seismic changes in the rhythm of our lives. One of the biggest changes was having so much time on our hands. We tried playing Scrabble as a diversion, but Donna repeatedly crushed me. I surrendered.
We filled the after-dinner hours with more TV and movie watching than we had done in our entire prior lives. After binge-watching Downton Abbey, I decided that being Master of the Hounds would have been the job to have back in that era. It seemed like a cushy, outdoor job…not to mention how cool I would look with a shinny horn and nice red jacket.
But the movie that most stands out to me in the year of Covid was ‘Roma”. Kill me. The most exciting thing to happen in the first fifteen minutes of that movie was watching some dude runover dog crap while parking a 1970 Ford Galaxie 500 in an impossibly small garage. Even in the age of Covid, where my entertainment bar had fallen so low that I looked forward to garbage day, the fifteen minutes I invested in Roma were fifteen minutes I wanted back.
As another distraction, I decided to let my hair grow until the pandemic was over. My streak ended at two months, at which time I had to look presentable for my first corporate Zoom. Donna had long been my barber and now, in the pandemic, I promised a big tip, if she would go topless while cutting my hair. “Keep dreaming,” was her reply.
Another effect of our glut of free time was that Donna and I became fiercely possessive of our home tasks. I assumed the duties of house cleaning. Twice-monthly, I took to my hands and knees to scrub the floors and shampoo the carpet. If ever I hear a man say that house cleaning is easy, I’ll tell them they are full of crap! It’s tough work. In fact, my body ached far more after a day of cleaning, then after my multi-mile hiking days. So, I guarded my cleaning job and other house tasks with the same passion Donna guarded her job niches. An attempt on my part to make a bed or do the laundry would earn me a rebuke, “Hands off, Mullane! That’s my job.”
October brought the distraction of a major snowstorm to Albuquerque. I donned my snow shows and headed into the mountains.
When Halloween came, our Governor implored parents to forgo trick-or-treating, but there was no outright ban. I sensed an opportunity to burn more time from the Covid clock. I was certain there would be some parents with kids in tow, roaming for treats. So, I set a table on the sidewalk and scattered candy on it. This arrangement also allowed me the opportunity to try out my Covid-safe beer drinking invention while I sat on the patio and watched that visitors only took a reasonable amount of treats. Over two hours only three children visited the table. I didn’t care. It was a two-hour distraction from the slow drip of Covid agony.
As news of several promising vaccines came, so did my caution of taking anymore risks. The last thing we wanted to do was take a Covid bullet in the final hours of the war. Donna and I cancelled trips to visit Pat in Boston and a Thanksgiving trip to visit Amy in Texas. For the first time in our married lives, we were totally alone for Thanksgiving. Donna burned a couple days by baking some delicious Holiday classics. Her biscotti and nut cookies are to die for.
Throughout that day we Zoomed with our (now) four children and (now) eight grandchildren, having hours of fun. Donna cooked a traditional turkey dinner while frequently rejecting my offers to help, “Cooking is MY job. Hands off!”
I suggested we dress in formal wear, eat in the formal dining room from our best China and use our best silver service. Donna agreed. I wore my formal USAF ‘mess dress’ uniform. I would never have thought we could have fun as a lonely old couple on a family-less Thanksgiving Day, but we did.
We did spend Christmas with daughter, Laura and her family…at no Covid risk. Laura, Dave and the kids entered a self-imposed, rigorous 10-day lock down, at the end of which they all took Covid tests (all negative). Donna and I stayed in our own lockdown. We were fully CDC compliant and had a wonderful Holiday.
Among the fun was viewing the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Given the unrelenting crap-show of 2020, it would have been most appropriate if Uranus (with a strong emphasis on its second syllable), would have been part of that conjunction or, better yet, if it had fallen from its orbit obliterating a Charmin toilet paper factory.
Now we await our vaccination and escape from Covid hell. There are few (zero) advantages to being 75, except in the world of Covid. In that universe, being a geriatric has pushed us to the front of the inoculation line. When those antibodies are finally swimming in my veins, I am going to fly to Wuhan, China and post selfies of me eating an undercooked anteater.
Now, please excuse the shameless bragging which follows. Us geezers have precious little to crow about. We certainly can’t brag about our sexual prowess; or, our instant, eidetic memory recall; or, our bat-like hearing (Why does the TV volume stop at 99?). And, as any geezer’s wife will attest, we cannot boast about our superior flatulence retention skills. So please humor me, while I brag about my hiking talents.
I have commented on the abundance of time that came with the pandemic. We all found different ways to consume that time. I used much of it to hike and snowshoe mountain trails in New Mexico and Colorado, ultimately recording a 2020 total of 660 miles and approximately 230,000 feet (43 miles) of cumulative elevation gain…all with a pack weight of 20+ pounds. Climbing the 14,080 ft Challenger Point in September, to place seven roses on the summit memorial plaque, was my most demanding physical effort…and the one which gave me the greatest satisfaction.
I want to propagate the memory of those lost astronauts, four of whom were my astronaut classmates. Holding a certainty in my heart their spirits linger here, I have visited them multiple times over the years. But at age 75, I’m nearing the end of my reserves to deliver the physical effort needed to summit this peak. With that in mind, in 2021 I hope to introduce one or more of the current NASA astronauts to this remembrance climb and ask them to pass the torch to future astronaut generations.
God bless all in 2021.
Copyright 2021 by Astronaut Richard ‘Mike’ Mullane, all rights reserved.