“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
— magnet on Travis Taylor’s fridge, from Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love
A Scientist and His Secret
The universe. Picture it 13.7 billion years ago. Just a tiny point, teeny tiny. Just a little old point of pure potential in the great expanse of nothingness. This point contained all the energy there ever would be. If we were smart enough, we could write a single quantum equation to describe this point.
For some reason, whatever your philosophy is, it expanded. If you looked at it from the outside, it would probably still look like a single teeny tiny point. We’re on the inside looking out. We aren’t actually in the universe. We are a piece of the universe. We are the universe. That big equation is still there, but each little individual piece of that equation is divided into what we call reality. We’re really all connected through this quantum coupling of the universe.
This is Travis Taylor talking. He’s sitting astraddle a wooden picnic table talking about his book The Science Behind The Secret. The table is underneath a tree. The tree is behind a house. The house a part of the community. The community a part of the state. The state is part of a nation . . .
We’ve always thought our brains work as a neural network, like the internet. But in order to model consciousness, the mathematics that you use to drive a neural network cannot allow for conscious decisions. Our brains are really quantum computers. With a quantum computer you write the wave function and the question is this formula. Then you have a database of every possible answer and you interact them. You overlay the question with all the possibilities instantaneously, like things stay and unlike things go away in quantum physics. So the solution automatically coheres and you instantaneously have the answer.
Every time you have a thought you set up these proteins in your brain to trap these electrons in certain areas and it’s creating a wave function. You’re doing that quantum reduction to solve the problem. That thought is also a quantum function that’s transmitted to the whole universe instantaneously. So anything out there in quantum physics that’s like what that wave function is going to cohere to it, or attract to it. Like things stay, unlike things go away. So anytime you’re having a thought you’re setting up a quantum function that you’re broadcasting to the universe. In physics like things stay, so if you’re always thinking, ‘Gah, today’s gonna suck.’ That’s what you’re broadcasting in quantum wave function to the universe and like things stay. So your day is probably gonna suck.
So that’s the key to it. There’s actually quantum physics and experiments to back this up. I started seeing these Secret people saying your thoughts attract what happens to you and all this. Well, I thought, that sounds like quantum physics. They were talking about electromagnetics and getting it all wrong. But I really dug into it and I really believe there’s something to it.
That’s how I got on TV. My wife and I were like, ‘How can I sell more books?’ We decided I should get on TV. I said, ‘I don’t know how to be on TV.’ ‘Well let’s just start thinking about what you’d do if you were on TV.’ So I started thinking about how I’d be a Carl Sagan or a subject matter expert talking about stuff. Out of the blue a production company from Hollywood calls me and asks if I’ll be on a show they were doing called ‘The Universe.’ And then it all spiraled into this.
His daughter Kalista stands behind him. She rustles and is impatient as young daughters are when strangers monopolize their fathers. “Hush honey. He’s recording.”
Somebody asked Kalista one day this week if she had invited Jesus into her heart. I told her, I said, ‘You don’t have to invite Jesus into your heart because he’s already there.’ If God is the universe, and you’re a piece of that, then you’re a piece of God, and God wouldn’t be whole without you. That’s sort of my overall holistic view of the universe. We’re all connected and we’re all in it together.
At some point he says, “Took me years to get here, so I can see why people would say bullshit.”
Here is also Somerville, Alabama. Population: 724. Total area: 1 square mile. Location: Charles “Daddy” Taylor’s house: main site of Rocket City Rednecks. Distance from the Rocket City: 45 minutes. Percentage of cast members that live in a three-mile radius of Daddy’s house: 80 (4 of 5). A mile north of the house is the Tennessee River. Just keep driving and then, suddenly, water.
Somerville’s a small town with a small center of several streets. One of those Alabama towns where the First Baptist Church is bigger than the town hall, courthouse, and library combined. The actual living occurs on the roads radiating out from this center. On one of these roads, which might not actually comprise Somerville, at least not proper speaking, an irrigation machine squats with mechanical wings spread like a wary vulture straddling the straight narrow rows of a long flat field of cotton. Across the street, in front of a decaying, grey-wooded barn, sits a combine the size of a World War II era troop carrier. A 60, 65-year-old woman with greyblue hair the consistency and transparency of cotton candy bumps along in the diffuse morning light on a red Snapper, head jostling back and forth, side to side with each bump before snapping back to center. Passing by, I see no difference between cut and uncut. A white sign with an Alabama A and elephant reads “Welcome Home STEVEN!” The sign’s planted in front of an aluminum-siding two bedroom, a single, scraggly tree in the yard, a barbed-wire fence beside with two undersized brown and white horses blinking while double-jointed swishing tails swat flies. Windows down. The whoosing passing silence of Alabama backroads. Bluff City Road bisects East Upper River Road. Friendship Road runs parallel to Cain Road. Men in white trucks wave at men in red trucks. Follow these roads long enough and there’ll be the Rocket City Rednecks.
Later, a little later, Travis will ignite two rocket motors capable of sending a rocket a mile high in the residential street in front of Daddy’s house. These rocket motors will be welded to the rears of two miniature metal toddler cars. “This clearly wasn’t a good idea,” Travis will say on camera. “I think we just made good TV,” a cameraman will say. One of the mangled cars will cross the street and land 10 feet from a neighbor’s porch. The neighbor will not like this. There will be barbeque chicken and pineapple ham. A production assistant and childhood friend of Travis and Rog named Sloth will tell me of his TV appearances. One of these appearances will involve Sloth fishing his pond while seated on a couch. I will later learn Rog refers to this pond, which he also lives near, as “Lake Flaccid.” I will step in dog shit.
But that’s later.
“Hey B-roll,” Travis yells at the director of Rocket City Rednecks, “when we gonna get back to building stuff?”
Born, A Hero
Travis Shane Taylor was born July 24, 1968 in Decatur, Alabama. One year later, July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. In 3rd grade, Travis decided he would be both a scientist and an astronaut.
“We have a private joke . . .” the mom begins. “The joke is he was conceived while I was working inside the Saturn V,” the dad finishes. The two have been married 48 years.
Charles Taylor worked as a machinist at Wiley Laboratories, which subcontracted for NASA in the ’60s. He met and worked with Wernher von Braun—“He had a commanding personality. When he came into the room it was both a combination of respect and also like he was a commander. The guys treated him like he was a superior officer most of the time.” Charles spent “months and months” working inside and around the Saturn V.
In 8th grade, Travis wrote a novella about post-nuclear America from the viewpoint of an 8th grader. The hero of his tale was an aerospace engineer who carried a bullwhip and flew around on a flying wing he invented to spy on the Soviets. His teacher told him it focused too much on gadgets and not enough on people.
Travis grew up during the Cold War. His second novel, The Quantum Connection, is dedicated to:
. . . the late Dr. Thomas E. Honeycutt. Dr. Honeycutt devoted his career toward winning the Cold War. He taught me the difference between wanting to do good science and actually doing it. His memory will always be with me and I’m grateful for having been able to fight the last few years of the Cold War by his side in our lab in Huntsville.
We won, Dr. H.
The Cold War and the idea of heroism are central to his work and writing. The numbers might not quite be right, but he has authored or co-authored something like 11 science fiction novels (all published since 2004) and 5 non-fiction books. One of his non-fiction collaborations is a practical, serious guide to planetary defense in the event of an alien invasion. The man is extremely interested in aliens. More about all this later.
The Taylor’s moved to their current Somerville home (what is now the set site of Rocket City Rednecks) 28 years ago. Travis was in high school at the time. He introduced himself to the neighbors by building radio telescopes in the field behind the house that picked up remnants of black holes and supernovas. He wrote a paper about this experiment. The paper won the Alabama state science fair and attracted the attention of the Army. The Army offered him a job working on direct energy weapons systems directly out of high school. He accepted. At the same time, he attended Auburn and studied electrical engineering. For four years he went to school and worked for the Army “building big lasers, experiments, and all that.” He’s a man known to “War Eagle.”
After graduating from Auburn, he went to work for the Army full-time while attending grad school part-time at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He collects advanced degrees. He has a doctorate in optical science and engineering and master’s degrees in physics and aerospace engineering, all from UAH. I’m pretty sure he’s working on another doctorate in aerospace engineering. At some point, because of course he would, Travis became interested in astronomy. He enrolled in one of the first accredited online classes at the University of Western Sydney in Australia. To obtain his master’s in astronomy he built what amounts to a planetarium in his backyard using PVC pipe, some sort of telescopic camera thing, and a $200 computer. He then discovered two planets bigger than Jupiter in another star system.
This is going to get redundant, but stick with me. He is a black belt, a private pilot, and is SCUBA certified. In 2007, he decided to run a full marathon. So he ran a marathon in under five hours. He races mountain and road bikes. He’s been the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of several rock bands. In 2001, while reading a science fiction novel (“I think it was a Star Trek book”), he became disgusted by the lack of science. He threw the book down and said something to the effect of “this crap is all space opera with no basis in science.” His wife was sitting beside him. Without looking up she said, “Well then why don’t you go write one yourself then.” Six months later he’d written Warp Speed, his first sci-fi novel.
The nature of his governmental work makes it difficult to give exact names and dates, but he’s worked for 15+ years on NASA projects, numerous three-letter intelligence agencies, and within the Department of Defense. He has “above Top Secret level clearance.” His day job involves working on “several advanced propulsion concepts, very large space telescopes, space based beamed energy systems, future combat technologies and systems, and next generation space launch concepts.” He literally wrote the book on rocket science.
At some point after 9-11 he took part in a think tank with Dr. Bob Boan, his mentor in the intelligence community, and a group of other intelligent individuals. They were working on what is known in intelligence circles as the “hard problems list”—which is a list . . . of hard problems—that is, problems heretofore unsolved.
“Dr. Bob Boan and I and a couple other guys were standing around the coke machine or coffee pot or whatever and one of us said, ‘You know, what would we do if we were invaded by aliens?’ Then we thought that’d be a good insight to go through and study, and it might give us some insight on the asymmetric war we were in.”
They then looked through every military database they could find for a plan in the event of an alien invasion.
“You can see on some of these UFO shows people will say, ‘Oh there’s a top secret plan’ or whatever. There’s no plan.”
So Travis and Bob Boan created their own plan—An Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion. The bibliography includes Robert Heinlein, Star Wars, Mad Max, the King James Bible, Mars Attacks, The X-Files, and numerous other science fiction books, movies, and technical science papers.
They started from the idea that there is not enough data to say there are no aliens. Travis, Bob Boan, and co. worked out the probability using “the Drake Equation.” Here’s some potential proof:
The book establishes the existence of aliens as finite. “It’s not zero and it’s not 100 percent,” Travis says. From there, he ran a series of simulations based on available war models. He created a simulation that 1.) assumed 90% of humanity would be destroyed in the initial attack 2.) the aliens would be mathematically 10 times stronger than humans, “didn’t matter if it was shields, death rays, or whatever” and 3.) categorized aliens by power levels—alpha 1-5, with 1 = ability to travel at the speed of light and 5 = God.
The only simulation in which humanity survives, one out of about 150, is where every female over 14 years old was pregnant with triplets, all kids under 14 were working and manufacturing weapons and infrastructure, and all the males over 14 were carrying guns and fighting.
“We certainly would do a first stand, but we’d get decimated. If you can travel from another star to here and we can’t even go to the moon and back, I mean . . . we’d get decimated.”
He and Bob Boan also co-wrote Alien Invasion: The Ultimate Survival Guide for the Ultimate Attack.
“One of the things that bugs me most on a daily basis is not knowing for certain how many different alien species there are out there, where they are, and when they’re coming. Certainly hope that we figure that out sometime in my lifetime, because that would kind of piss me off if they don’t.”
These are the constant thoughts of Travis Taylor, rocket scientist and cable TV star. I believe these thoughts are in some way connected to Carl Sagan and the Cold War.
For God and Country (But Mostly Country)
The writer John Hawkes claimed failure to be the only real subject. Far as I can tell, Travis Taylor has not failed, I mean really failed, at anything he’s tried. The last section highlighted all he’s accomplished. The man is damn near tireless. He works for NASA or the CIA or wherever during the week, films a TV show in his father’s garage on the weekends, and records songs about drinking beer, indicating that he finds time to sit around and drink beer with his friends. And of course he writes science fiction novels and creates probability functions to predict the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.
I described his range of activities and interests to my landlord. “I bet his personal life is in shambles,” he said.
Travis also has a wife and two young children. They are building a house in Somerville less than a mile from Daddy’s. His daughter was both well-behaved and adorable. She wants to be an artist and spent a portion of the shoot drawing people and trees in her sketchbook.
At one point I asked Travis if he considered himself a celebrity. Kalista was hovering nearby.
Travis: I don’t really, but I’ve had people say that I am. I guess I do have a TV show, right? It’s weird.
Kalista: Weird having a dad I never get to see.
Travis: Aww, you get to see me.
Kalista: Last night we had no air conditioner and you didn’t come home.
Travis: I came home and fixed it. Though it took me till two o’clock in the morning to fix it.
Kalista: You didn’t really fix it. The guy fixed it.
Travis: Well I had to help the guy fix it.
Kalista: You gave stuff to him.
Travis: Don’t worry bout it. We’ll talk about that later.
Kalista: Dad, can I have a cookie?
Travis: Yeah, go eat a cookie. I don’t care. Mommy said she’d be here before long and ya’ll can go to the movies. Go get your cookie.
Travis’ endless curiosity and his manic search for understanding is at once a strength and weakness. His curiosity drives him to want to attempt all these goals and projects, but it also keeps him from spending long amounts of time on any one idea. (Speaking of Rocket City Rednecks, his personal fitness interests, and his writing, which is a constant push forward, sometimes at the detriment to style and spelling.) Travis is more or less a highly intelligent, highly skilled dilettante. This is not an attack. The term dilettante has become a pejorative in recent history. It’s now synonymous with dabbler, amateur, someone unserious. The dilettante is often negatively viewed as someone with a superficial understanding of a wide variety of subjects—“jack of all trades, master of none.” But dilettante can also carry the more positive connotations of polymath and Renaissance Man. Travis says things like “I don’t want to not know anything. I want to know why everything is the way it is.”* It’s possible he suffers from ADHD.
“I guess by definition I am a polymath. I have to accept that, but I don’t really think about it. My goal in life is not to leave things undone. I want to go do stuff. I want to go see stuff and do stuff. So I’m not going to stop. I want people to realize anyone can do that.”
And he does want people to realize anyone can be a polymath. By his own admission, all his sci-fi novels are about heroism, specifically American heroism.
I remember when I wrote my first book some critic didn’t believe that character could exist. He had a blackbelt in martial arts, a PhD. in physics, and was a pilot and was a couple other things, and was very heroic.
[Travis admits the protagonist of Warp Speed, Dr. Neil Anson Clemons, an homage to his sci-fi hero Robert Anson Heinlein, was largely autobiographical. “Apparently that’s what most first-time writers do.”]
And they said it was just unbelievable. And my response to them was, look, that’s ridiculous. Have we become such lardbutts in this country that we don’t think we can be heroes? Look at Story Musgrave for instance, famous astronaut, pilot of the space shuttle several times, has six master’s degrees. He used to jump out of airplanes at high altitudes just to do experiments on how it would affect the human body. Look at Chuck Yeager, high school educated, taught himself how to become a pilot, became the nation’s greatest test pilot. Look at most of the astronauts. They have multiple degrees, multiple this, that, and the other. Have we lost ourselves so much we can’t be renaissance people anymore?
For whatever reason, probably more nature than nurture, Travis would’ve always been curious about the world. “Travis has always been wanting to learn more,” his mom says. “I don’t think he’ll ever learn enough.” But the nature of his nurture—the world into which he was born and raised—(naturally) directed that curiosity.
“I don’t think it’s been publicized much about how much paranoia there was back in those days between us and the Russians,” his dad says. “We were absolutely terrified every day that either the Russians were going to beat us to the moon or take space as a weapons platform. We didn’t really know what they were capable of doing.”
“Don’t you think we were a more competitive nation then than we are now?” his mom says.
“Oh yeah, much more so,” his dad says. “Because we were conditioned after World War II. We were conditioned to be competitive, and we had come out as the victors, so naturally we had this superiority thing. And then when all of a sudden the Russians put Yuri Gagarin in space and it embarrassed us, and really scared the living hell out of us. From that point on we were basically paranoid of everything the Russians did. It affected everybody’s individual attitude too. If you went to work every day you could depend on somebody saying we’ve got to get this done. We can’t leave here without making this work, because we don’t know where the Russians are.”
Such is the world Travis entered. His father, a machinist working on giant rockets built under the direction of a German supergenius, something out of a comic book almost, except he’s on our side, helping us defeat the Russians, and Travis, he a baby born almost a year to the day before the moon landing, growing into a boy who loves science fiction and dismantling household electronics, maturing into a young man constructing radio telescopes in his backyard in the hopes of picking up signals from parts unknown, joining the Army out of high school to build lasers and rockets and advanced propulsion systems in no doubt supersecret labs somewhere in northern Alabama all in the hopes, in the hopes of defeating the Russians and proving America to be the America his father and his father’s father fought and died and prayed America is and was and perhaps one day could be. (“We won, Dr. H.”) So of course Travis loves heroes. Heroes represent not only who he is and what he’s done, but what America can be.** “Have we become such lardbutts in this country that we don’t think we can be heroes?” In a sense, yes. America has lost its faith in heroes. The quintessential American superhero of our era is the doubting, tortured, decidedly human Batman of Christopher Nolan. The time for Superman has passed. He died along with our monolithic sense of Good vs. Evil that crumbled with the Berlin Wall. What was left of our belief fell with the Twin Towers. Our decade-long involvement in the Middle East fighting a faceless foe, a foe we can’t embody with an Ivan Drago or a Crimson Dynamo, a foe uninterested in “rules” or “proper warfare,” stirred the ashes and noted the time.
A very real example of American heroism in Travis’ life is his older brother, Chief Master Sergeant Gregory Taylor of the Air Force Reserves. Greg Taylor, father of Michael Taylor, youngest member of the Rocket City Rednecks, was named NCO of the year in 2008. In an online interview, Travis talks about his brother’s service overseas. Travis refers to himself as “just a scientist.” He talks about his love of working with the Army “to defend our way of thinking, our way of life.” The very first episode of Rocket City Rednecks involves Travis and co. using beer cans to “bomb-proof” a pick-up truck—the goal being to develop a cheap, lightweight armor to protect Humvees in the Middle East from roadside bombs and IEDs. Travis Taylor is above all a patriot.
His patriotism, or, to frame it differently, his nationalism, was perhaps cemented forever at 17 by Carl Sagan. Contact, probably Sagan’s most popular book, had just been released and Sagan was in Huntsville to speak to a group of rocket scientists at the von Braun Civic Center. Travis brought a copy of Contact he hoped to get signed.
Sagan said he came to Huntsville—“the city of Wernher von Braun and birthplace of the space program”—hoping to get one good, educated question. He then went on what Travis described as a rant about President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. This was during the American and Soviet nuclear arms race. Sagan was a loud advocate for nuclear disarmament. Travis says Sagan went so far as to mock the gathered rocket scientists, saying there was no possible way SDI would ever bring peace to mankind. According to Sagan, the only possible path to peace involved a joint manned-mission to Mars.
After the speech a line formed to try to attempt to ask Sagan his “one good, educated question.” Travis stood in that line. He was going to ask, “Why put all our eggs in one basket? We should do the joint missions to space with the Russians, but we should also protect ourselves and plan on stopping the Soviet Union. Let’s do everything; let’s do it all.”
Travis was next in line. But the guy in front of him, some goofball, asked, “How is Johnny Carson? And have you seen him lately?” Thus ended the questions.
Dejected and disillusioned, Travis left the speech. It was raining. Perhaps there was lightning. But then he saw Sagan walking to his limo. Travis ran over, approaching carefully “not to appear too much like a fanboy.”
“Dr. Sagan, Dr. Sagan, I think I have your one good question.” Sagan’s driver held an umbrella over Sagan’s head. Travis was no doubt standing in the rain, the pages of Contact soggy, the ink perhaps bleeding. “You have 30 seconds,” Sagan said.
Travis asked his question.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘That’s just absurd,’” Travis says, pronouncing Sagan’s voice with prototypical nerd inflection. “‘There’s no way SDI has any benefit whatsoever, and the only way that we’re ever going to have peace with the Russians is to go into space with them. I still did not get that one good question.’”
Sagan lowered into his limo and his driver drove him into the Huntsville night. A 17-year-old Travis Taylor left standing alone in the rain.***
A Yawning Maw of Ya’lls
It’s press day and I’m a member of the press. A man in what appear to me to be expensive brown leather shoes, the kind with no laces and squared-off toes, and a long sleeve button-up one size too big asks what outlet I’m with. “The internet,” I say. He’s with The Huntsville Times, which I’m told was once a newspaper. I drink my special press-level bottle of water and talk to Michael about his “go-buggy,” which is a shopping cart he attached a motor to when he was 16. This shopping cart can reach speeds up to and around 40 mphs. He says he’s older and wiser now and not so much interested in riding atop a shopping cart at speeds up to and around 40 mphs. His accent is as advertised by the television. If I was sent from the big city to further fetishize The South, I’d say his accent’s “the sweet and syrupy Southern drawl of extended l’s and prolonged p’s at once congealing and clashing like a big ol’ plate full of pancakes and potato cakes at [corner diner named Pop’s or Pa’s or Ma’s] where [Dale or Steve or Milky-Eyed Jim] tells [off-color, gently sexist and lovingly racist, jokes] to [retired mill workers and gentlemen of leisure] over creamed coffee the color of momma’s pecan pie while [Sue or Ann or Sue Ann] sassily wipes counters and provides [mediocre and resigned and futile] service with a quiet, resolute strength befitting her genteel Southern raising as [Hank Williams or Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings] croons about [drinking or fighting or screwing or all three at once] from the rusted jukebox in the corner with the broken glass and the one exposed speaker.” But I’ll just say Michael’s accent is “thick.” Tha-ick. We talk like two people talking.
Travis drives up in a big red truck. I don’t know much about trucks, but it was a Chevy or a Ford, something American. We, the crew, cast, journalists, and I, are all standing in the driveway of Daddy’s house. Behind us is Daddy’s unattached garage, which is where the Rednecks meet for the planning of every episode. (Travis’ intonation of “Daddy” is very much similar to that of Rusty’s from Squidbillies.)
Travis is a man of medium height. Probably 5’10/5’11. But he appears shorter. Something about the slouch of his shoulders or the length of his neck gives the impression of a man shrinking into himself. Or perhaps his brain’s heavier than most. He leans forward as he walks. Head first as it were. We were all waiting on Travis to arrive. It is obvious he is the unquestioned leader of the Rocket City Rednecks.
The rocket car happening we (the press) were invited to witness is not for a half-hour so Travis takes me around the set, which is to say around his father’s garage and backyard. The garage itself is full of fishing rods and deer heads, tools and machinery. The chalkboard from the show is there, but it’s not actually a chalkboard. It’s a piece of plywood painted with chalkboard paint bought at Lowe’s. Travis scrawls the physics and building strategies of a given project on this piece of plywood with children’s chalk.
There’s a room inside the garage full of explosives with a NO SMOKING sign on the door. Cameraman walk around and through us. I meet Dr. Pete Erbach. Travis tells him I’m from Auburn. “War Eagle,” I say. Pete shrugs. He attended UAH.
Parallel to the garage is a barn that was specifically built for the second season of RCR. Inside this barn is an assortment of PVC groove, strips of cooper, insulated foam, motor cases for rockets, fiberglass and apoxy glue, “a screen suit Rog made for me to get into a million-volt Tesla coil we already did this season,” several boxes full of electronic motorcycles that will be used to build Travis a wearable Transformers suit (“We’re going to go to the beer store and pick up a keg”), a dozen or so boxes of assorted soft drinks, chips, peanuts, and several sets of shoulder pads and a couple helmets.
“We need pads a lot.”
Behind the barn is an ovoid-shaped wooden contraption covered in spray foam. It looks something like a booger, but a booger from the nose of some giant, some god—Zeus’ booger. Travis tells me it’s a survival pod meant to protect a person, maybe two, during a natural disaster or the apocalypse. It’s theoretically fireproof thanks to some space shuttle tiles Travis or maybe Pete salvaged through some sort of government contractor excess. I notice Travis’ hands for the first time. They are both spotted black and gnarly with calluses. Shortly thereafter we sit under the tree behind the house inside the community contained by the state within the nation of the world in the solar system inside the galaxy surrounded by the universe.
The experiment itself is to take place in the street directly in front of the Taylor’s home. Travis will ignite the two cars from a slight grassy incline on the opposite of the street. The other four RCR members will stand nearby, for the viewing populace. There’s a safety meeting in which a man nicknamed Johnny Bravo outlines some instructions that can be distilled to 1.) watch out for fire 2.) stand back. One of the cameramen tinkers with what looks to be a mechanical spider, six legs and all. But it’s a helicopter camera, which will whirr in the sky above us all. Hovering and buzzing and judging the human folly unfolding below.
And oh the folly. The cameramen closest to the action stand behind a transparent sheet of something not glass or plastic that will supposedly protect the fragile flesh of these men from these two metal objects propelled at speeds of 100+ mph. These brave men, these foolhardy men, stand not 20 feet from doom and destruction and those other words that really mean nothing until someone’s lying on the freshly-cut lawn with the twisted metal wreckage of a child’s car sticking out of his chest. We are offered safety glasses. I wear a pair. Two people are standing behind a tree. Kalista sits on the porch with her grandmother. I realize The Huntsville Times’ reporter is not wearing safety glasses. I remove my safety glasses.
Twice the ignition is interrupted by passing cars. This is a residential street. Both times Travis says, “Hey, how ya’ll doing?” It’s understood that a response isn’t necessary. Rog yells out, “Tell that gal I’m married. She smiled at me. Tell that gal I’m married.” I laugh along with the cameramen. I take four steps backward, closer to the people peeking from behind trees.
Finally. Finally ignition. The director says something like, “Clear” or, “Go.” There’s a countdown. I plug my ears. For a second, a split second, all appears well. The cars continue in the correct direction. But, suddenly, both twirl into the sky, dancing and skittering in random movement. Smoke like sudden thick fog. A trail of sparking light jerking through this smoke above the heads of the Rednecks. One car, the more willful of the two, somehow avoids the protective barrier of trees in the neighbor’s yard and lands 10 feet from the house. Michael is sent to retrieve the rogue car. He and the neighbor get there at the same moment. She, middle age I guess from across the street, is wearing a white T-shirt and hot pink nylon shorts. I hear: “I am appalled . . . this is the third time . . . “ Kalista would later tell me the neighbor had already once before called the cops on RCR.**** Michael returns holding what’s left of the tiny black flame car. “I just got chewed out,” he says. “This clearly wasn’t a good idea,” Travis says for the camera. “I think we just made good TV,” a cameraman says. Later, Rog tries to show me footage from the helicopter cam that indicates just how close they came to disaster. A cameraman pulls Rog aside and reminds him of copyright and my status as interloper.
Travis told me he had two philosophies he lived by.
1.) You can’t live your life dwelling in the past or focusing on the future. You got to live right now. I can sit here and dwell all day about the rocket car almost hitting the cameraman. I could sit here and be all tore up about it. But I got it; I saw it; I learned from it, and right now I’ve to do this and we’ve got to move forward. If we ever do it again, being mindful of the future is we’re going to be twice as far away next time we shoot a damn rocket off.
2.) I don’t use the word try. I’ve completely taken the word try out of my vocabulary. And when I catch myself saying it I correct myself. I agree with Yoda 100%. There is no try. The universe doesn’t care. You either do it or you don’t. To say you tried is really what people who’ve failed say to maintain dignity. So you do or you don’t.
We eat lunch and I talk to the different cast members. Pete tells me there have been no injuries of any sort on the show, and that, while drinking beer is a founding pillar of the show and part of their general ethos, they do not drink during scenes like the above. The parents express their displeasure with our current president’s decision to discontinue the space program. Rog. Rog and Travis were both in the same gifted program during middle school. Travis went one way, Rog the other. He says he never cared about school the way Travis did. I believe him. He opens a beer as we talk.
“There’s nothing that he’s set his mind to do that he hasn’t done,” Rog says. “Not a thing. I’m so proud of him. Proud I can ride his coattails too.”
Rog is something like the conscience of the show—the superego to Travis’ id. “I’ll tell him if he’s got a booger hanging out of his nose. I ain’t no yes man.”
We’re standing in the backyard, Rog and I and the NatGeo publicist, and it’s been made clear it’s time for me to leave. All the journalists have already departed. The cast isn’t done for the day. There’s more building, more tinkering, more sound bites to film. Two people, a man and a woman, riding horses appear in the driveway. One horse is brown and the other a darker brown. Both man and woman are wearing red outfits flecked with silvery sunlight-reflecting sequins. The Taylor driveway is a driveway friendly to both man and beast.
About this time I step in shit. I make a noise and lift my foot. “I stepped in it,” I say, pointing my shoe toward Rog. “Well you can’t ride home like that,” he says. “It’ll stink up the whole car. Come round here real quick.” I follow him to the back of the garage and a hose. We talk. I ask him if he’s always lived in Somerville.
“Yeah man. I’ve traveled. I’ve been places. This place is the best place in the country. I mean that. You know how people are here.”
We walk back toward the house, my shoe feces free. We round the corner. There, in the driveway, the horses. Double-jointed swishing tails swat flies.
* Let’s say a man, let’s call him Matt, let’s say Matt walked up to Travis and said, “Hey good buddy Travis. Got a proposition for you. I’ll give you total knowledge and understanding. You’ll have the ability to create a faster-than-light drive system. You’ll make first contact with an alien species. You’ll have your own superlab like Tony Stark. America will continue on into the forever future and be a great and just colonizer of far-flung planets and solar systems. You’ll live a long and prosperous life and you’ll forever be remembered as a hero to all humankind. In exchange, I get your immortal soul, which I will most likely condemn to eternal damnation and the fiery pits of Hell.”
99.9% sure Travis would immediately agree to these terms.
** Here’s a snippet from One Day on Mars, which is a “boots on the ground” science fiction tale of the rebellion of a Martian colony from the Sol System Government: “[It] took all those years of planning and plotting and scheming and faking our deaths and hiding and running, but America, a true America, is going to go on. Thanks to you. Thanks to your brilliant plan, your sacrifice, and your resolve. It has been a long time coming, but we finally had our day. Our last day in our home star system. We are leaving the old world to attain a new one.”
“A long wait for a long day. But it is more than that, Scotty. One day we will return and right the Sol System and return America to its original greatness there as well. One day on Mars the true voice of freedom will be heard again. One day on Mars liberty and the pursuit of happiness will prevail again!”
*** Look at this picture of Sagan and try to hate the man.
**** I overheard Johnny Bravo tell one of the crew members that the production team sent her flowers. “We’re sorry,” it reads.
Want us to bring you more mind-bending, 5,000-word profiles on Auburn geniuses on reality TV shows? Do you have five dollars?
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* “My wife was the Auburn Tiger.”