Dwight Watson: Zero Degree Gravity (memoir)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: Now retired, I devoted the past thirty-six years teaching at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. But I was born in Johnston County, raised in Burlington, responded to frequent calls from Emerald Isle, the lower island of the Outer Banks, to relax, and have known North Carolina as my home.
Zero Degree Gravity
It was a stellar year for NASA. 1965. The Gemini missions, 3-7, launched the heroic pairs of Grissom and Young, White and McDivitt, Cooper and Conrad, Borman and Lovell, Schirra and Stafford—astronauts who lifted imagination and made many of us look to the sky. I was 13, and, like other youngsters, I dreamed of orbiting the Earth and floating in zero-degree-gravity. My parents had other plans for me—plans that were more celestial than cosmic, more heavenly than astronomic. In other words, church. To my sorrow, I remained grounded in church while Edward H. White II walked in space.
I sat with friends, Jimmy and David, fellow space travelers, in the sanctuary of the Baptist Church to which my family belonged. Making good use of the half pencils and tithing envelopes provided, playing Hangman and Dots and Lines, we occupied an unforgiving wooden pew near the exit just about as far away from the pulpit and the preacher as young teenage boys can get.
My brother, ten years younger than I, a rather large and active 3-year-old, who later made good on his size by becoming the center and long snapper for his high school and college football teams, at the time was sitting near the front of the church (I believe in the third row) between my mother and father. More accurately, he wasn’t “sitting,” he was gyrating, popping up and down and spinning away from self-control. He had reached that time limit planted in children that says, “Enough is enough! It’s time to raise some hell. I’ll show you what the devil looks like!” I may be overstating the situation, and so let’s just say that his mind and body were no longer in the same place. And, as our Southern Baptist preacher’s sermon gained steam, rocking the ages, and cleansing souls of disharmony, my little brother, matching the energy level of the preacher word for word, summoned his inner demons to a dance. He began clogging, in a fashion, rapidly on the seat of his wooden pew.
You should know, now, that we were not Charismatic Christians, nor Holy Rolling Pentecostals (although I had visited some of those churches growing up), and we were far from the Snake Handlers reported to gather in rural parts of my birth state. We were your run-of-the-mill Southern Baptists, who, when filled with the spirit during a particularly charged sermon, might shout out “Amen!” and sometimes lift a waving hand or two in the air. And, during the long drawn out alter call, the singing of “Softly and Tenderly” or “Just as I Am” just one more time, and one more time, one sinner after another would leave the pew and journey to the arms of the preacher at the front of the church—exchanging Saturday night’s transgression for Sunday morning forgiveness.
On this particular Sunday morning, my brother could not wait for the invitation, the alter call, to be “saved.” He heard a different request. And while dear mom and dad struggled to keep him still and quiet, his body began to surge, and, determined to demonstrate his dance moves, he shot up in the pew, arched the small of his back on the top of the seat, and executed a perfect backflip into the lap of a surprised church goer behind him. He was safe, landing in one piece, that is, except for one of his shoes, which, during the flip backwards, he launched into the air some twenty feet or more.
We watched as the shoe flew through space. On a mission to escape the sanctuary—it slipped, as the poet says, the “surly bonds of Earth,” leaving behind the pulpits and pedestals, the naves and narthexes, the baptismal pools and backdrops of River Jordan, past flashes of brilliantly stained glass, mosaics of Jesus, deep red and purple, cobalt blue and green, and all facets of amber, and beyond, far beyond the sanctuary lamps and hanging fixtures, and, with superluminal speed, to the sky above—the firmament.
The congregation, and the preacher, were amazed at the flight of my little brother’s shoe. When it landed some distance away from the launch pad, at first there was silence, and then laughter, followed by more and more laughter. In that moment, we were unaware of our weight; we were free falling. I do not know what the sermon was about that day, but I am pretty sure for me it had something to with going to church, reluctantly, then meeting the unexpected, the unshackled sensation of laughter, the singularity of space and the distortion of time, and floating in zero-degree-gravity.