SEEING THROUGH AN ASTRONAUT'S EYES
When my 12-year-old son and I saw the movie ''Apollo 13,'' I told him a true story, about how his apparently ordinary mother once had a personal acquaintance with the last man on the moon.
Back in the early 1980s, I was a radio news reporter in Albuquerque, and the astronaut, having left NASA, was a United States senator from New Mexico. This situation put me in frequent contact with him, which usually involved my sticking a microphone in his face and asking questions.
All through his answers, I kept thinking: My gosh, just look at him. He walked on the moon. He was the last one there. He saw impossibly rare and startling things, but now here he is, spilling words into my hand.
One day, I was sent out to cover a presidential visit. This didn't happen very often in Albuquerque, and never to me. We local media types were corralled onto a bandstand about five feet above the airport's Tarmac while national press and VIPs roamed free at ground level. That's where the senator was: The last man on the moon was schmoozing. After all, the president had come to bolster GOP re-election campaigns, including, as I recall, the senator's.
''Hello, Senator Schmitt,'' I called down to him from my perch. ''It's a big day, I guess.''
''It certainly is,'' he smiled, happy as can be.
Harrison ''Jack'' Schmitt was the first scientist to become an astronaut. A geologist, he was part of the three-man Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 - the last moon landing. He hip-hopped across gray powder at a place called Taurus-Littrow, scooping, digging, and hauling back more than 240 pounds of moon.
Ten years later, he worked crowds, not rocks, glad-handing for votes on a hot, dusty runway. I thought I could still see the missileman in him, though. He was like his spaceship: compact and tightly wired. His lapels lay flat across a tidy chest, and despite the rising heat, he stood cracker dry.
Jack was a handsome man, dark with especially nice teeth. His eyes were a combination of intensity and distance. They took you in and moved on. Under their gaze, one could feel at once uplifted and drab, like common stone.
He paced to the tarmac waiting for the president, then pointed to the sky. ''There it is,'' he said, and Air Force One appeared out of the flat, blue air.
It landed, taxied, and pulled to a stop parallel to us. I was about to broadcast live, but the plane was too far away for me to pick President Reagan out of the crowd.
''Senator,'' I called out. ''I can't see from here. When he comes out, let me know, will ya?'' He smiled and nodded up to me. He could see fine.
In my headphones, I heard the anchor toss it to me: ''And for that report we go live to the Albuquerque International Airport....''
My cue. I was on the air with no president in sight. ''Air Force One has indeed landed, touching down just moments ago to enthusiastic applause. President Reagan has not yet emerged, although we expect his presence any time now....'' I stalled. I talked about Air Force One, about the dignitaries, including the senator who glanced up at me and shook his head - no president yet. I talked about the national press, now at their swarming peak.
Then, as I described our mounting excitement, the senator spotted Reagan and tried to signal me. But I was occupied on the air, squinting at the plane. He stretched up to the only thing within his
reach and gave my ankle a gentle shake. In deep and important tones, I proceeded to announce: ''Senator Schmitt has just grabbed my ankle to say President Reagan is here.''
What? Horrified, I shot a look at him, but he didn't seem to notice. He grinned and set off to meet the president.
I couldn't stop the report and explain my circumstances, so I plunged on. The president arrives, the president waves, the president shakes the senator's hand. They wave, they leave.
When it was over, I raced back to the station. Probably no one noticed. I walked in, and the anchor jumped up and said, ''He grabbed what?!''
Humiliating yes, but there was something sweet about the incident. A hand that had once sifted moon dust and ancient rubble had circled my ankle. In a way, could I claim to have been touched by the moon?
Months later, Jack gave a presentation to an elementary school in Albuquerque's South Valley, a poor area. I was sent over to do a feature. As I pulled up in my news car, I saw him on the sidewalk collecting his things - stunning slides of moonscapes. He walked in alone, no entourage. By that time he'd lost the election, so he was both a former astronaut and a former senator. Carrying a briefcase in one hand, a box in the other, he might have been selling brushes.
I sat in the bleachers with the youngsters while he operated the projector, explaining each photo in his brisk and hearty manner. The man in the business suit talked about the man in the spacesuit: ''There I am,'' he said, ''on the moon.''
There he was, all right, next to the American flag with Earth above his shoulder like a pretty, blue parrot. One knee of his spacesuit was sooty from kneeling in the dust.
When the show ended, he took questions, and then gave the kids a little pep talk about staying in school. They applauded and filed out.
Only 12 men walked on the moon, and the last among them stood in the middle of a basketball court packing up slides.
Out on the sidewalk we chatted. The cicadas were building to their afternoon din.
''Jack,'' I said, turning to look him in the eye. He was perhaps two feet away from me, and I could see the lines in his face. ''Are you in a rush?'' He wasn't. ''Then will you....'' I closed my eyes and opened them again. ''Could you tell me what it was like?''
And so he did. I think he wanted to tell me. Sharing his experience was part of the mission, and he gave it to anyone who would listen - presidents, little kids, awestruck reporters.
He sat on the passenger side of my car in a South Valley parking lot and gave me his story. The astronaut gestured with his hands and looked out the window at a stand of cottonwood trees. He raised his eyes to the sky, and because I couldn't see that far, he told me what was out there.
He seemed to talk for a long time. I said very little because I wanted him to go on and on. I wanted the sun to set and the moon to rise so he could point to the place.
The time came, however, when he had to leave. In my memory, he left a trail of gray powder prints behind.
This is the story I tell my son. I don't think he understands why these events are important to me. It's just that when Jack described his journey, I got to go, too: We paused in the dust; we looked up and saw the Earth waiting like a mother in a doorway for him to come home.