Paul Greenberg

Of course it would happen in the dark, which is where I saw all those old B-movies at the neighborhood theater on Saturday afternoons. One week it would be cowboys and Indians, the next Dick Tracy in his snapbrim hat and trenchcoat outwitting villains who, back then, still looked like villains and had names to match -- Pruneface and Mumbles and Flattop. What fun. But my favorite had to be those cardboard sci-fi epics, preferably with aliens uttering commands in unknown tongues ("Klaatu barada nikto!") just in time to save Earth.

Give 'em a happy ending every time. But then it would be time to emerge from the cavernous theater into the bright Southern sunshine and disillusion. I walked home scuffing my shoes, doomed to familiarity, knowing every crack and uplifted slab in the dusty sidewalk, every chinaberry-stained spot. I had emerged from a dark wood but not, like Dante, to see the stars. It was still day, which always came as a surprise, so many things had happened in the past couple of hours. On celluloid anyway. And in a boy's overactive imagination.

But now the movie was over and it was back to drab reality. Walk on the moon? A voyage to Mars? I knew that would never happen in real life. It was only a story, make-believe, a show for kids. I needed to grow up, shake myself awake, stop daydreaming all the time. Pay attention. Life was serious, life was earnest. Outer space returned to inner tedium.

Then, in the middle of the night, knowing he should have hit the sack a couple of hours ago, an old man clicks on his television set to catch the last news of the day. Which is another of his bad habits. And curiosity ascends again. Or rather Curiosity was about to descend -- on Mars. On exact schedule after having left eight months and 352 million miles ago. Now it was entering the Martian atmosphere. Naturally, it would happen in the dark, according to this slice of Earth time called Central Daylight. Just as it had inside the old Rex Theater in Shreveport.

The old sense of suspense returns. What the scientists at NASA called the seven minutes of terror had begun. That's how long it would take Curiosity to settle safely on the floor of a crater surrounding a three-mile-high mountain. The rover would be lowered via a very American combination of the most advanced rockets, an old-fashioned parachute, and a series of cables and pulleys operating on principles the ancient Egyptians would have recognized at once.

It could have been a collaboration between a mad scientist with a German accent like Wernher von Braun (To the Stars!) and a garage inventor like Bill Gates. The result would have pleased both visionary and tinkerer, Leonardo da Vinci and Rube Goldberg.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.