Today begins the first day of marketing for my latest book: The Great Journey. I will publish it a chapter at a time here on my blog and you can read it for free. If you like the writing, please consider buying the book. It can be purchased at Amazon.ca or .com. Please consider signing up to receive notification of new blog entries. Enjoy the journey.
Although the authors and publisher have been diligent to provide the reader with a complete and accurate account of the experiences related, some details have been summarised and dialogue has been paraphrased for clarity. Many people contributed to the making of this book and the use of multiple languages by key characters complicated the production of the manuscript, which was created from first-hand accounts and a mission log covering more than a year of activity and personal reflections. The time available for editing and translation was limited in order that the book might be published in a prudent fashion. As will become clear to the reader, there was a need to get the material out to the world before a different perspective was related by other political powers. It was understood that the first account would likely be the one to become widespread in world news outlets. Whatever else you might hear, this story is the truth, told as accurately as possible. We appreciate our readers’ understanding regarding inaccuracies and grammatical oddities. Some ways of speaking about the people involved are intentional.
I remember the day it began. It was a summer morning like any other day. The grass had grown and was going to need a cut soon, but for now I could ignore it. The dandelions were the tallest things in the lawn; Dad might yell about those, but for now I had the morning to myself. The hedge around the yard was Dad’s great joy. It was thick, lush, full, and tall. It protected our yard from the prying eyes of Mr. Gimble on one side and the shrill voice of Mrs. Lutke on the other. Dad liked his privacy and so he tended the hedge with deliberate care. The bees were buzzing and licking nectar out of the sweet Caragana blossoms. I paused and took one of the blossoms between my teeth to taste it myself. The sugary cocktail of perfumes filled my mouth and nose, and I knew once again that it was summer.
Then I saw it. It was clearly a hole, a hole just slightly smaller than my ten-year-old frame. A hole in Dad’s hedge. Oh no, no, no, no! This could not be. The world was tilting ever so slightly toward the hole and drawing me into it. What felt like increased gravity drew at the core of my being causing me to fall toward it. My head was the first part to get sucked in and then my shoulders had to swivel to fit into the tear-drop shape. As I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into the interior of the hedge, I knew I would catch it from Dad but there was no turning back now, especially as I considered the serious exposure of the seat of my pants as I crawled forward. I wanted to get my whole body in as quickly as possible. The hole looked something like a worm hole in an apple. It wound into the metre and a half of hedge and climbed slightly to the left. Before I knew what I was doing, it popped me out on the other side about half a metre above the ground. I fell out and landed on my side.
My eyes quickly adjusted in the bright light of morning unhampered by the hedge shadows, and I tried to make sense of my surroundings. This was not the Gimble yard, or at least not the Gimble yard I remembered from looking through the Gimble house into their back yard. This looked more like a car parts yard, except all of the car parts were made of stainless-steel, granite, and ebony. Every piece was smooth to the touch and perfectly machined. Tools were organized on benches, hanging on large walls of granite, and lying flat in the drawers of extremely clean toolboxes. I wondered if it was a laboratory or operating theatre and began to look around for clues. Besides the machined parts, benches, rock walls, and tools, there was nothing else to see. There was not a blade of grass, not a single dandelion, and nothing but blinding white sand for as far as the eye could see. I pinched myself to see if this was a dream. My body reacted with a jump and a wince, and I knew in an instant that this was not a dream.
A strange mix of fear and curiosity struck me. Should I stay or should I go now? What would happen if I picked up a tool or piece of hardware?
My eyes landed on the most beautiful piece of stainless steel I had ever seen or imagined. It was a large circular piece of metal that was shaped like a large bowl. It was slightly flattened on the top and was about ten metres in diameter. The metal was thin and light but very sturdy. I looked at it, analysed it up close, climbed on top of it, and smelled its surface. It was absolutely perfect, and I immediately wanted to use the bowl to make something else that would also be perfect by virtue of coming into contact with this most perfect of creations. I found a stainless-steel ring off to one side and I lunged at it, grabbing it quickly before it had a chance to blow away in a wind or roll off the face of the earth. Anything seemed possible in this place in which I found myself. I knew it would fit the outer ring of the bowl and I knew that it had to be welded onto it. But of course, I didn’t know how to weld. I looked around some more but nothing else attracted me like that stainless steel bowl and ring. I wanted to make something from all of this and knew that with the right knowledge I could. The fear continued to develop into a sense of foreboding, like I was on the edge of some great enterprise that had far-reaching implications. The curiosity drove me on; the fear and foreboding held me back. My skin prickled and the tiny hairs on my arms stood upright. I wandered around for a while more before looking for that hole in the hedge. At first, I couldn’t find it and I ran around frantically looking for the way back home. I tried to peer through the hedge but instantly knew that the hedge was too thick to see through or push through. I began to panic. The prospect of staying in this barren land was terrifying. Which way would one turn to find rescue? I already sensed that crying out would do no good.
And then, there it was. Was that the same hole in the hedge from which I had come? It seemed lower down in the hedge. The shape might also have been slightly different. The hole was pristine with no sign of leaves or blossoms knocked loose by size four shoes. As I continued to study the hole, my eyes played a trick on me, and the passage began to close up. Or was it really changing? I decided not to take the chance and dove into the hole with all of my might and adrenaline. I fell out the other side and as I rolled over on the ground my eyes went up and locked squarely with the eyes of my father. I jumped up with a start and gave him a nod that might have seemed more like a salute. Dad, looking puzzled, asked me what I had been doing rolling around in the grass and why there was sand in my hair. I stuttered and stammered and got something out about the hole in the edge. “Wow, Dad, did you see that hole in the hedge? Where do you think it came from? What could have made a hole this big? A racoon, a possum?” Dad began frantically looking for a hole in the hedge. He gruffly asked me what I meant and where the hole was, but neither of us could find anything resembling a hole in his pristine hedge. It still looked as good as it ever did in early summer. The honeybees continued to buzz and go about their business. The sun still shone, and the apocalypse had not descended upon our corner of the world. After a little more probing I decided to consider myself fortunate and simply said, “Oh, I guess I was wrong. There’s no hole after all.”
At just that moment, Mom called out to say that lunch was ready and Dad told me to run and wash up. I ran in, brushed the dirt and dust out of my hair and clothes and washed my hands and face. I was pretty quiet through lunch. Mom and Dad mostly talked about the gardening they would continue to do on this pleasant Saturday afternoon. When they asked what I had been up to this morning I replied with an evasive, “Oh, nothing.” Pretty much what I would have said anyway, but this time I really didn’t want to tell them that I had been eyeing up pieces of polished stainless steel in a strange machine shop on the other side of our hedge (if indeed that is what I had been doing – my mind was already questioning my own interpretation of events). I was pretty sure that saying anything about the world on the other side of the hedge would lead to embarrassing questions and a lecture about telling the truth. Dad suggested I find something productive to do with my afternoon and hinted at mowing the dandelions. I told him I was sure I could find something to do with my time and ran off to grab my bike. Dad started to object but Mom intervened with a “let him be a boy” look as I made a hasty exit.
That afternoon, I went for a long bike ride with my thoughts scrambled by what I had seen on the other side of the hedge. I wondered if I had imagined it. After all, I was pretty good at pretending my bike was a spaceship and that I was the first astronaut to visit a distant planet. My invention of the Spiral Descent Orbit was famous throughout the solar system. Maybe I was just making things up like that. I felt a mixture of curiosity and foreboding, but just now I had the sense that people were talking about me in angry voices. I couldn’t imagine how I could be aware of any such thing, but there it was inside my brain. For some time, I was lost in my thoughts and unaware of how far I rode my bike. By the time I turned back I had just enough time to race back for supper. It was another rather quiet meal and I wondered if Mom and Dad had been arguing. I thought I noticed a redness to Mom’s eyes. Had she been crying? That never happened. Mom had probably single-handedly brought back the great philosophy of stoicism. She was not one to cry over even the greatest disappointments of life. The evening was also quiet, and I read a book in my room until it was time for bed. Did I imagine it or did Mom give me a tighter hug at bedtime?
My sleep that night was filled with crazy dreams. Where does this stuff come from? There was a cat swimming in the ocean, dinosaurs as big as skyscrapers, a creature flying quickly through the air with jet-propulsion, and trees, hedges, and bushes I had never seen before. Why was my head filled with this zoo of creatures and plants? I woke feeling like I had not slept at all and raced out of the house even before breakfast. I wanted to check the hedge.
And there it was. Another flaw in the hedge. It looked tiny, but as I made my way toward it, it seemed to grow. Again, the pull of that spot was unavoidable. My head, my arms, my torso went quickly into the teardrop shaped hole. My feet kicked a little and again I dropped out on the other side in an awkward, unceremonious fashion.
As far as I could tell, everything was the same as the last time I had been here. There was that same beautiful stainless-steel bowl that I wanted to touch and explore. I felt like I wanted to play and sleep in it for the rest of my life. Perhaps I could turn it into a fort. There too was the ring of shiny metal that enticed me so much yesterday. This time, I would do more with these beautiful objects. Something told me to begin with the bowl and I managed to flip it over so that the flattened side was down, and I got the ring in place on top of the bowl. I had just grabbed the welder and applied a bead of molten steel to the two surfaces when it occurred to me that I still didn’t know how to weld. At least I had not known how to weld yesterday. I had watched welders do their work, but I had not the slightest idea how to do it. Suddenly, I was a welder. Sweat poured off my brow as I finished the last bead of the weld and used up all the steel wire I could find. I had just enough.
By now the shadows had changed. While I had been preoccupied with welding, the earth had done its amazing slow-turn on its twenty-three-degree axis, and now I could tell that the hour was approaching noon. I felt like I should be getting hungry and began to make my way back to the hole in the hedge. Fortunately, I could reach the hole on this side of the hedge, and I hiked up my hips, hurling myself through the opening.
My yard was empty this time and Dad wasn’t around. I was already having trouble remembering the day of the week. I had thought it was Sunday, but it couldn’t be because no one was looking for me and expecting me to go to church. Mom had lunch on the table and told me to wash up. Was she really unaware that I had skipped breakfast or was she just leaving it alone so that she didn’t have to scold me and tell me about the importance of the first meal of the day? Mom and I talked about the weather, and she asked me what I was going to do with this bright shiny Monday afternoon.
“Monday?” I thought. I was confused. Shouldn’t it be Sunday right now? I asked Mom about it.
She just said, “Opie, you are confused. You slept most of Sunday away with a fever. But you seem all right today. Why don’t you spend a bit of time in the back yard. The fresh air and sun will be good for you. But take it easy.”
Now I really was confused. I did not remember having a fever or sleeping away most of a Sunday. How could I be feeling so strong now? I didn’t feel like I had been sick. I said I would go out in the yard and maybe go for a short bike ride around the neighbourhood. Mom said that would be fine as long as I took it easy and made it home in time for supper.
As I wheeled my bike toward the gate, I thought I might take one more look at where I had seen that hole in the hedge. But before I could get there, I saw a different hole in the hedge very close to the gate. This one was definitely real, and I was sure that Dad was going to see it and have three fits. Again, I found myself wanting to go and check it out. It was the same size and shape as the previous ones, and I found that with just the right amount of effort I could squeeze my way into it. This time I paid more attention to the nature of the hole to see if I could see anything unusual about it. But there was nothing to see. It was just a slightly spiral hole in the hedge that allowed me to progress all the way through the hedge to the street out front. Except that, when I got to the other end of the hole, I was not out on the street at all. I found myself in the same strange workshop. The end of the hole this time seemed to be a little higher than it had been last time, and I had to be careful jumping down onto the sand. I wouldn’t want to twist an ankle and not be able to get back into the hole again.
There was my work sitting just as I had left it: the smooth bowl capped by a stainless-steel ring. Even now I wondered how I had been able to flip the bowl and get the ring up on top to weld it in place. But stranger still, I knew what I needed to do next and swiftly set about the work. There was a small hoist off to one side, the kind mechanics use to lift motors or other heavy objects. I used it to lift and weld a second bowl onto the ring welded onto the first bowl. The resulting contraption looked like a flying saucer from one of those strange TV shows I was not allowed to watch. I still had not quite decided what I was building, but the things I found in the yard began to make clear the next pieces to be assembled. I cut a small hole in the back of the structure through which I was able to insert other things that were around. I wore a lamp on my head for extra light and before I knew it, I had installed a reclining chair, two video screens with keyboards, the main power boxes, and a video game controller that looked like a steering wheel. I assumed I was making myself some kind of pleasant home or fort, the kind a ten-year-old boy would be able to enjoy when he wasn’t mowing the lawn. I could not determine the use of all of the pieces I was placing in the little room, but the texture of each one was exciting and I began dreaming of stories I could create in my mind and games I would play. With a little imagination, this fort could turn into a rocket ship that would take me to the moon just like the ones my dad helped build. It did seem curious that there was not a single window in the room, but I knew that the plans (I had not seen any plans, but I knew that somewhere there was a set of plans) did not call for any windows.
The afternoon ended in a similar fashion to the morning. I realized it must be getting late and that, although I didn’t feel hungry, I should be getting hungry, and it must be time for dinner. I hoisted myself up into the hole. This time I had to climb the motor hoist to get myself up high enough to reach the hole and I crashed through the hole back to my yard. Yet, when I looked back at the hedge by the gate, I could no longer see the hole I had just come through. Things were getting weirder and weirder.
Now, before you think that you are reading the story of a complete looney, perhaps I should tell you a little about myself. My name is Opie Taylor, yes, just like the character on The Andy Griffith Show on television. I guess when your last name is Taylor you just can’t resist giving your son a cute name like that. At least that is what my aunt says. I have been thinking of switching to using my middle name of Allan, but I can’t seem to get my parents to remember to call me that. I have tried putting Allan Taylor on the top of my math sheets, but my teacher just ignores it and calls me Opie anyway. Ah well, I guess it is just a name. I am who I am regardless of my name. I’ve never taken the time to figure out what this name means anyway. My parent’s names were rather plain, John and Mary Taylor and so perhaps Opie is simply a borrowed name because they couldn’t imagine anything inspiring.
I have always been what adults called precocious. I guess that means I think about things that mostly older people think about and that I am the best student in my class. Right now, it is summer and so I have two months of Saturdays to enjoy before heading back to school. I don’t mind school but neither do I mind having more time to enjoy being outdoors and riding my bike. I say two months of Saturdays because Sundays are always a little more structured around here. Mom always checks on my hygiene right after breakfast on Sunday morning and sometimes sends me back to the bathroom to wash my ears or clean the dirt out of that little dent between my neck and chest. Then I put on my stiff shoes, wool pants (the ones that itch), my best long-sleeved shirt (even on days when Grandpa says it is hotter than blazes out there), with my clip-on tie before we head off to church. Church isn’t so bad. I kind of like the singing and my Sunday School teacher is nice to me. She says I have the cutest cheeks and the most precious name. I just wish my clothes could be more comfortable. I will never understand why the Good Lord insists that our throats be tied up tight in a collar, our legs must be itchy, and our feet need to squeak. I spend a lot of time doing my own thing. I don’t have a lot of friends. Grandpa says that I should have had a few brothers and sisters to make me more well-adjusted, but that just causes Mom to grimace and leave the room quick while Grandpa always says, “Why, what did I say to make her go and act like that?” Grandma usually frowns and acts like she is going to hit him across the side of the head.
I have lived all my life in the same house. My dad is an engineer over at NASA and he is always talking about the amazing machines they are building over there. Why, just last year, two different missions sent men to the moon and back. This year, 1970, Dad has been spending a lot more time at work since they almost lost a crew in April. Dad says they have to check and recheck every piece of everything before they put it into a spacecraft. They simply can’t make any mistakes.
As I look back on all of this from a number of years later, I don’t know why this story happened to me. At the time, I could not figure out how those holes in the hedge kept appearing and disappearing and it was a kind of happenstance that led me to take a very long-distance trip. But wait, I am getting ahead of the story – I guess I had better tell it in order.