They tried to sell my father's body parts on eBay. By the time I found out about it, the page had been removed and NASA and the FBI were alerted. Then the sellers put it up on Craig's List under the heading: souvenir. I couldn't believe it at first, but my girlfriend, Ariel, found it when she was looking for a science project she needed for school. I checked it out: the real deal, the skull of Major Jason Lagari Hasan Celebi Dumont, namesake of the first man to fly on a rocket and a distant relative of Santos Dumont the first man to fly ever, and the first pilot of the SELF, or Single Earth-Lunar Flyer.
It was supposed to be the first flight of a vehicle that, under its own power, not strapped to a rocket like the shuttle, could not only break the upper atmosphere, but actually get into space, orbit and land on the moon, then fly back to earth and make a controlled landing.
But the SELF broke apart on its way back to earth. Or it exploded in the upper atmosphere, no knows for sure what happened. My Dad's left foot was located in El Dorado, Kansas, a small town outside of Wichita, his right elbow outside of Springfield, Missouri, and they never found anything else.
We had a funeral with full military honors and everything, visiting politicians from Washington, D.C., a twenty one-gun salute, jets in the "Missing Man" formation did a fly by, lots of tears. You bury what you have, I guess.
Then his skull turned up.
When a body falls from a great height, the wind resistance is a constant, driving force. So, when a jet breaks up at 40,000 feet, most of the bodies hit the ground or water naked. Shirt buttons, zippers, pant legs, are all just places for the wind to get a grip. Clothes will disintegrate or just fly off. Flesh, too, if you're falling from that great a distance, and my Dad plummeted from a great, great distance.
The skin might have burned off in the upper atmosphere, or it might have been the wind, just peeling it off dad's face like flesh off a peach. Some kid's labrador retrieved it while the kid was duck hunting near a lake just outside of Hutchinson, Kansas. My Dad's helmet landed in Idaho - how it got there is anyone's guess - his last name, "Dumont" stenciled just below the eagle's wings he always put on above the faceplate, so they figured it was him.
I met the boys who sold it. Not too bright, even for seasonal farm workers. They didn't get much money for it. They were in handcuffs. I guess I could understand it, if you didn't have a lot of options in life, how a thing like that could come along and you'd want to profit from it. Money is tight these days. Dad always said to me, "Don't be too hard on people, not everyone has had the breaks you did. It's a tough world."
The handcuffed sellers didn't bother me as much as the guy who bought it. Walter Earl Wright, a retired mail clerk and amateur astronomer with a keen interest in space exploration. Wright had models of all of Mercury rockets, Sputnik, the space shuttle, the Saturn V, and the space station hung from on fishing line from hooks on hooks in his ceiling. On the mantelpiece, next to some moon rocks, next to his battered helmet, he put my father's skull on a flat pedestal.
I went in with a couple of NASA guys and a team from the FBI. They were hassling Wright, who was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, never looking at them in the eye, yet addressing them as "sir," and all I could do was look at those empty eye holes and that permanent grin.
Suddenly, I heard myself say, "Let him have it."
"Huh?" one of FBI guys asked.
"What? said a NASA suit.
"Let him have it. Please."
They looked at each other and in unison said, "We can't do that."
"Why not? Contact your boss and make it happen."
There were a series of phone calls, and one of the FBI guys handed me the phone and the voice on the end hissed in my ear about how "inappropriate" it was. No, it's a fitting memorial, and hung up. What did that guy know about inappropriate? How appropriate was it my Dad to burn up in that experiment? How appropriate was it for him to burn up and die on national TV? Wright shook my hand and said a lot of things to me, but I didn't remember any of them. He spoke so fast that they didn't register.
In Wright, I saw all the faces of the children that surrounded my father and me at the Natural History Museum. It was a week after he landed the shuttle and his face was already on dozens of magazine covers. I was eight, and so happy to have him back. They'd been in orbit, getting an emergency light on the landing gear. Dad had gone a space walk and repaired the landing gear strut and re-fitted broken panels on the shuttle craft thus avoiding the possibility of the ship burning up in re-entry or crashing when landing, and averting disaster for NASA and the nation.
Ticker tape parades had followed. I had even shaken the President's hand. But at the museum that day it was just my dad and me, looking at primitive man.
"Dad," I said, reading from the plaque on the display case, "It says here some early hominids had a signal crest."
He laughed. "A what?"
I pointed to the drawing of the distended cave man skull, "It was on top of their heads," I said. "Their jaw bones were so heavy that jaw muscles had to tie into it."
My Dad laughed again. "Lotta guys I fly with could use one of those," he said, and then we both laughed. Then someone spotted my Dad and said, "Hey, Major Jason Dumont!" and waved others over. They surrounded us, bringing more people with them, and more.
Someone shouted, "The Rocket Repairman!" I looked up at my father, his smile bright and perfect. he was busy and happy, in love with people he had never seen before. I turned back to the australopithecine himself, beyond his glass enclosure. The huge, dark, blank eyes of the mannequin seemed fixed on me instead of the crowd nearby. Someone took a flash photo and i thought the ape-man blinked. He had, hadn't he? He was just a plastic figure, right? I kept looking at him, hoping.
I turned one last time to my father's skull on Wright's mantel.
Everyone always told me how much I looked like my dad. I had his green eyes, they said, and I often walked around with my brow furrowed, the way he did. That same brow was a bit pronounced, my nose large, my jawline straight and strong like his. In fifty years or so, my skull could look exactly the same as the one I was looking at right now.
My skull would be in a casket, sealed in a vault, buried in the earth, the journey from flesh to bone a private matter. I'd be just another anonymous dead guy. That would be okay with me.
Jake James is a writer living in California.