December 1968 – Merritt Island, Florida
The West Break Room was empty, save for Senior Aerospace Engineers McMilty and Dumas, who sat alone at one of the rectangular white tables. Each man was dressed in the standard black pants and white short-sleeved button-down shirt favored by the scientific professional of the day. Their thin black ties were thrown over their shoulders to protect them from incidental food stains.
“Did you hear who’s going on the mission?” McMilty asked through a mouthful of tuna fish sandwich.
“No, it hasn’t been announced yet,” replied Dumas, dabbing a bit of ham salad from the corner of his mouth. “Why, you hear something?”
“Well, I heard Slayton’s already made the decision.”
“Judy, in payroll. Sort of.”
“Judy . . .Judy . . . Blonde, bee-hive, cat-eye glasses?”
“No. Brunette, bee-hive, cat-eye glasses. Or one of them. Anyway, she has been seeing Bill Braxton, the draftsman from three?
“Braxton. He the one who snuck into the simulator after hours and threw up all over it 20 seconds into the program?”
“No. That was Buxby. Control Room maintenance. Anyway, Braxton’s working on the Extender design with me and a few others from two, and last Friday, we grabbed some drinks after the late meeting.”
“The Star Bar?” Dumas asked.
“No, The Bottle Rocket. So, Bill gets sloshed, I mean absolutely hammered, and blabbers loud enough for half of the joint to hear that Judy told him that SHE knew who was going on the mission. Said the memo’s typed up and in Slayton’s safe. Said he’ll make the announcement after the holidays.”
“How did she know this?”
“How does anyone know anything?”
Dumas considered this and shrugged. “So, did Braxton say who?”
“Not right then. He seemed to catch a wave of sobriety and realize that he’d almost made a big mistake. Excused himself to the john.”
“So, how did you find out?”
“I’m getting there. So, I followed him in, naturally. Only because I had to go, of course.”
“Of course. Not weird at all,” Dumas replied, taking a drink of water from his small styrofoam cup.
“Like I said, he was sloshed. Didn’t think he would notice. So, I’m standing there beside him at the urinals. And he’s swaying a bit.”
“Is he going? You know, relieving himself?” Dumas asked.
“I have no idea, but I assume. He’s facing the wall. And he’s humming some tune I can’t quite place. Something patriotic, I think. I’m kind of watching him out of the corner of my eye, trying to gauge his mood, without seeming like a perv or whatnot. Drunk or no, there are some lines you don’t cross in a men’s room.”
“So, did you ask him?” Dumas pressed.
“Didn’t have to. I had made up my mind to, opened my mouth to say something, and he leans his head sideways and kind of slurs, ‘Pstt. McMil. . . . McMilty. You wanna know whose goin’ up there? I’m dyin . . .’ He staggers a bit before continung, “. . . dyin’ to tell someone. But, ya gotta swear you’ll tell NO ONE. Not one. Little. Bitty. Person. Judy could get fired. . . .ahh, Judy, she’s such a peach. Just a doll.’
“He trailed off and I think for a moment he’s fallen asleep, so I say, ‘Sure thing, Bill. You can get it off your chest if you want. Doesn’t matter to me either way.'”
“So that’s when he told you?” Dumas asked.
“I’m getting there, for crying out loud. So, he says he’ll tell me, but not directly. Says I have to guess. Says, ‘Alright McMilty. Here’s your hint, and I’m NOT gonna tell you if you guess it right, so don’t even try!’
“‘Sure thing, Bill,’ I say.”
“‘Okey-dokey,’ he says, still swaying and staring at the wall, with his head still leaning toward me. And before you ask, I’m not certain if he’s still peeing but I chose to ignore it. ‘The first one. . .’ He trails off and squints as if he’s coming up with a good clue. Finally, it seems a light has dawned, and he says, ‘The first one is a real BUZZ-kill, if you know what I mean.’ I stare at him blankly, not because I don’t know who he was talking about, but because it turns out he is REALLY bad at this kind of game, at least when he’s drunk.”
“So Aldrin’s going. Not surprising. I think he was pretty much a given,” said Dumas.
“Yeah, agreed. Not much news there,” replied McMilty. “But I lean in and act real surprised, and this seems to please him, like he’s just shared something really great with me. ‘I like this game, Bill! This is fun.’ I say. ‘Can I go double or nothing on the second one?’
“This really seems to tickle him, and he barks a booming laugh which echoes off of the ceramic walls so loud I’m sure someone’s bound to rush in and see who’s dying.
“‘Double or nothing!’ he exclaims. ‘You’re a funny guy, McMilty.’ I chuckle appreciatively but say nothing and finally, he continues. ‘Ok, double or nothing round.. . .’ He pauses again, and seems to give this next one considerable thought. Finally, he says slowly, ‘The second guy rhymes with Bike Brawlins.'”
“Bike Crawlins?” asks Dumas. “That’s really what he said? Any idiot would know that’s Mike Collins. Boy, he really IS terrible at this game.”
“Of course he is. But, this time I think it best to pretend I can’t crack his code. Wrinkle my brow and say I’ll have to think about that one. After a few moments, I say I am having a real hard time with it, but wonder if I could hear the next one, say this is positively a blast. He beams at this. He looks like he might hug me, which would be beyond awkward, as I still am not certain the state of his . . .relieving himself. Anyway, he looks satisfied, and says, ‘Alright McMilty. For the last one, you’ll have to STRONG-ARM me to get to the truth,’ and winked.”
“Wait, what?” said Dumas.
“I know. Just when you think this game couldn’t get any more idiotic, he reveals the last in a laughably obvious play on words.”
Dumas’s face hardened and his eyes flared.
“What’s with you?” asked McMilty.
“They’re sending Armstrong to the moon?!” blurted Dumas.
“Naturally. Unless Braxton lied, and I think he was too drunk to lie. He’s a straight shooter when he’s sober. Either that or he’s better at drunken urinal games than I thought.”
“But, Armstrong?!” repeated Dumas.
“What’s wrong with Armstrong? Makes sense to me. He’s got the experience, fit as a fiddle. Will look great on national TV. Seems a good choice.”
“Good choice, are you serious?” belted Dumas.
McMilty furrowed his brow and stared at his colleague for several moments. Finally, he said, “What do you have against Armstrong?”
“Where do I start? For one, that guy leaves melted nacho cheese in the microwave ALL. THE. TIME! And have you seen his reports? I mean, c’mon Neil, how about a full stop every once in awhile, Mr ‘Run-On Sentence’!”
“I think his reports are actually quite good. He’s always seemed like a stand-up guy, everyone says he’s humble. And, how do you know it’s him who leaves cheese in the microwave?”
“It’s got to be him! He’s EXACTLY the kind of guy who would leave cheese in the microwave. ‘I’m Neil Armstrong, big Astronaut,” Dumas said in a mocking tone. “‘I’m going to the moon, so I don’t have to clean up my cheese and my reports can be HORRIBLE!'”
“Where is all of this coming from? . . . Wait,” McMilty started, pausing a beat to consider Dumas. “Is this about last year’s Christmas party?”
“No, it’s about a poor decision being made which will ruin our space program!” Dumas nearly yelled.
“No, it’s not, this is about the Christmas party. Neil supposedly got your name wrong when he was introducing the engineers to the VP.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is about my belief that Armstrong is a bad choice. Plain and simple.”
“What was it he called you?” asked McMilty with a grin.
“I don’t remember,” Dumas responded, casting his eyes down on his largely-untouched sandwich.
“Sure you do. What was it. . . ?” pressed McMilty.
“I have not idea what you’re talking about.”
“Come on,” started McMilty, “You think he pronounced your name wrong . . .”
Suddenly, Dumas threw his hands up, palms forward like he was going to slap the table, and screamed, “The name is pronounced ‘Doo-Maas. Doo-Maas!’ How can people STILL get that so wrong? Are we still in Junior High?!”
McMilty roared with laughter. “Yes! I heard about that, but. . . ” McMilty trailed off seeing the look on his colleague’s face. “Well, either way, it was an accident. An honest mistake.”
“Honest mistake? Honest mistake?! He humiliated me AND my wife in front of a room full of my peers AND the Vice President of the United States!” retorted Dumas.
“I thought your wife laughed at it? In fact, someone told me that she was practically in tears after he said it, had a hard time regaining her composure for several minutes?”
“Some of us deal with embarrassment in different ways,” screeched Dumas through gritted teeth, jabbing a finger toward McMilty. “My wife laughs uncontrollably. It’s a social flaw. Besides, as ridiculous as it is that people STILL cannot pronounce my last name, or worse yet, willfully make a juvenile joke about it, it was his little jab with my FIRST name which left little doubt to his intentions.”
“Oh, come now, Pete, I’m sure you misheard. I’m sure he said your first name correctly.”
“‘Complete’!” Dumas shouted. “He said ‘Complete’ not ‘Pete’! I did NOT hear wrong, that . . .’stand up guy’ mocked me in front of everyone!”
McMilty guffawed at this, doubling over the table and slapping it several times with his open hand. “So. . .” he chortled, “Neil Armstrong called you ‘Complete Dumb . . .” McMilty cackled again, allowing the remainder of the moniker to hang unspoken in the air between them while he continued to laugh. When he finally had regained his composure, he continued, “In front of the VP? And half of the scientists and engineers at NASA? Ahh. . . I doubt it, buddy. I’m sure you misheard or it was an honest mistake.” McMilty dabbed a tear at the corner of his eyes and fought an urge to give in to more laughter.
“You weren’t there, and I know what I heard,” sulked a deflated Dumas.
McMilty got up from the table and threw away the remains of his lunch. As he headed for the door, he turned back to a still-sulking Dumas. “Seriously, you got to let this one go, my friend. Honest mistake. And Armstrong’s the right person for the job. Oh, and don’t forget: not a word to anyone else.”
Dumas stared at his half-eaten sandwich, no longer hungry. “Not a word. Hmmph. As if I’d tell anyone.” Rising from the table, he swiped a few crumbs from the front of his pants and adjusted the pens in his shirt pocket before walking across the room to throw away his barely-eaten lunch.
“Honest mistake,” Dumas mumbled, as he headed for the door. Years from now, no one will know that hack’s name, he thought. But from this point forward I will make it my mission that wherever science and progress are celebrated, people will remember the name ‘Pierre ‘Peter’ Totalis Dumas’.
Reaching the break room door, he pushed it open with a determined force, a fuming resolve to reclaim the honor of his name and his profession. He also felt an overt regret that he had thrown away a perfectly good ham salad sandwich, accompanied by an acute hunger and a realization that it was going to be a long afternoon.