A Stowaway to the Thanatosphere: My Voyage Beyond Apollo with Norman Mailer
December 31, 2012 | by Rex Weiner
On a brisk December day in 1972, the SS Statendam left New York Harbor with an extraordinary passenger list. Theoretical physicists, science fiction writers, a handful of paying passengers, a reporter from the New York Times, media personalities, and a couple of distinguished literary figures, including Norman Mailer. All were aboard for the ship’s destination, Cape Canaveral, to observe Apollo 17, the last manned rocket launch to the moon.
As the skyline receded in the distance, two individuals in black leather jackets and boots tried discreetly to mingle with the other passengers on deck. Eschewing the one thousand dollar passage and without the freebies extended to celebrity guests and credited media, they had simply strolled on board at the last minute. Once the ship cast off they became—in the legal parlance of the sea—stowaways. Stowaways with a mission to rescue Norman Mailer from the clutches of a diabolical cabal of elite space imperialists.
Advance media hype surrounding the Voyage Beyond Apollo, as it was billed, promised stellar seminars, expert panel discussions, and learned presentations by marquee names, including former astronaut Capt. Edgar Mitchell, top NASA rocketeer Wernher von Braun, sci-fi hero Arthur C. Clarke, and Mailer, whose 1970 book, Of a Fire on the Moon, qualified him as an expert on space travel. The nine-day cruise, according to a newspaper story, had been organized as a commercial venture with the goal of booking well-heeled amateur astronomers, civilians with a passion for space travel, and luxury cruise regulars paying good money to rub shoulders with famous authors and far-out scientists.
I showed the story to my pal, an ex–Air Force pilot named Thomas King Forcade who had dropped out to become a pioneering weed smuggler and head of the Underground Press Syndicate. Forcade had once published a newspaper that carried a real bullet hole in every copy. He achieved national notoriety for his testimony at the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography in Washington, D.C., a testimony that consisted of tossing a cream pie in the committee chairman’s face.
I was publishing The New York Ace, a sort of newspaper that featured cranky writers like P. J. O’Rourke, D. A. Latimer, and Richard Meltzer, and professed an apocalyptic editorial position. Tom was a contributing editor and a comrade in the wars we waged at the time on the home front, counter to another war raging overseas. Accepting that life was short, Tom and I conspired on various projects, many of them illegal, violent, or both.
Most recently, during the 1972 Democratic and Republican National Conventions we’d launched the Zeitgeist International Party, or Zippies. An anarchic assemblage of political sociopaths and twitchy young potheads, the Zippies were the most vocal and visible demonstrators in the streets of Miami, characterized by a high arrest rate and antipathy toward the old guard Youth International Party, known as the Yippies. Neither George McGovern, Richard Nixon, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, the FBI, nor the Miami Police Department had been amused.
That was all over now. Nixon was president, Watergate was still a third-rate burglary, and Tom and I were left feeling anxious, paranoid, and bored. We were both admirers of Mailer—the tough little reefer smoker, contrarian wordsmith, libertarian politico, and no-nonsense ladies’ man—so the story about the Voyage Beyond Apollo stirred our interest.
“They’ve cleverly organized this thing on a ship, you dig, that way no one can crash it,” mused Forcade. He theorized that the cruise was just a cover for an elite conclave conspiring to jettison Earth once they’d totally ravaged it, and establish an exclusive colony for the rich and powerful in space. Everyone else would be left to fight over dwindling resources and perish in the terrestrial ruins. “Mailer is either in on the scam or they’ve suckered him into it. We have got to get on board that ship,” Tom said, “find out what these motherfuckers are up to, blow their cover, and rescue Mailer before it’s too late.”
Under the influence of a fresh shipment of Tom’s Columbian import, I thought it seemed like an entirely reasonable plan. Or at least a fine Caribbean escape from the Manhattan winter and the relentless political chill that had set in. So I became one of the two stowaways on the Voyage Beyond Apollo.
Clarke, von Braun, and the ex-astronaut never showed, and tickets didn’t sell very well. A vast number of cabins and staterooms were left vacant. The ship sailed on, nevertheless, with its complement of sci-fi stars, including Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov and Ben Bova, ex-German rocket engineer Krafft Ehricke, Hayden Planetarium director Kenneth Franklin, among others, all to be presented by NBC’s Today show host, Hugh Downs. As an added attraction, Katherine Anne Porter took an elegant stateroom on the first class deck. The eighty-two-year-old author of Ship of Fools was said to be on assignment from Playboy to write about the adventure.
One of the event’s two ringleaders was Dr. Robert Enzmann, a physicist who used the opportunity primarily to promote his incomprehensible revision of Einstein’s theory of relativity. The other was Richard Hoagland, a big name in the UFO community and the foremost proponent of the notion that certain NASA photographs of the surface of Mars reveal a monumental humanoid face built by aliens.
Canceled seminar, speaker mix-ups, and a cascade of organizational snafus led to a shipboard free-for-all as the SS Statendam steamed southward. The slapdash nature of the event began to stir doubts in my mind about Forcade’s conspiracy theory. These people couldn’t organize a PTA meeting, let alone an extraterrestrial exodus. Nonetheless, we proceeded with our urgent mission. Trying to catch Mailer on his way into the dinner salon, but lacking assigned seats and any decent attire other than the black leather jackets, boots, and jeans we’d worn coming up the gangplank, Forcade and I were forced to retreat to the buffet for our supper.
Afterwards, we parked ourselves in the main bar cadging free drinks, counting on running into Mailer there. Midnight tolled, yet the novelist proved elusive. We stumbled topside to a huge first-class stateroom just a couple of doors down from the captain’s. I’d snatched the keys earlier from the purser’s office. By tidying up our berths every morning, we figured, the crew wouldn’t notice.
Our man finally surfaced the second night. Rounding Cape Hatteras, the ship’s cinema was screening 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gale-force winds rose up that evening to buffet the ship, decks tilting crazily, people puking over the railings. The perfect antidote to seasickness turned out to be the ounce of Columbian we’d brought along. The joint passing hand to hand around the audience was also a sublime accompaniment to Kubrick’s freaky space fantasy. When the lights finally came on, Mailer tottered over the listing floor from where he’d been sitting in the front row. Handing back a burnt roach, he thanked us for providing the pot.
In the back of my brain, I recalled his often-quoted line “One’s condition on marijuana is always existential,” as I prepared to tell him about the conspiracy. But I was too existentially stoned to do anything but offer to light up another joint. He refused.
“As Voltaire famously said, ‘Once a philosopher. Twice a pervert,’” Mailer explained.
“We gotta talk to you, man,” began Forcade, before he was interrupted by the stunning woman in a tight sheath dress tugging at Mailer’s arm. It was Carol Stevens, Mailer’s wife, calling it a night.
“This sucks,” said Forcade well into the third day. Mailer was nowhere to be seen. We were approaching Cape Canaveral and the day of the space launch. Forcade seemed to be sinking into a funk. Something was wrong. We were pretty close friends, Tom and I, but he was a secretive guy with a lot of weird stuff going on that I generally didn’t pry about. He was prone to disappear for days or weeks on one of his illegal ventures. Now he was disappearing right before my eyes. I confronted him finally—what’s up with you, man? Tom confessed what few people knew at the time, the sort of confession that fellow travelers tend to share aboard sea cruises: he was a clinically diagnosed manic-depressive. He said a doctor had recently prescribed medication to control his wild ups and downs.
Suddenly it all became horribly clear. This adventure was the brainchild of one of Tom’s manic moments back in the city. Now here we were in the middle of the ocean and Tom was on a downswing. Worse, he’d forgotten to take his pills along. His prescription pills, that is. He had a whole pocketful of other pills: Quaaludes, Valium, Vicodin, Codeine, Dexedrine, Dexamyl, some orange barrel LSD, a whole gamut of uppers and downers, and he was popping them like jelly beans.
I steered my suffering friend to a seminar, in hopes it might provide a distraction. Mailer was on a panel with Enzmann, Azimov, and Bova. The topic was the future of space travel, and the sci-fi writers joined the scientists in being unequivocally for it. Mailer expressed an opposing view. Railing at the government’s space program, he accused NASA of having “taken the most exciting event of the twentieth century and succeeded in making it monumentally boring and profoundly depressing.” Instead of performing magic tricks, tapping the supernatural powers of the universe through arcane rituals and testing telepathy in zero gravity, said Mailer, astronauts were shuffling across the surface of the moon collecting rocks.
“When you apply the scientific method to the supernatural,” Azimov declared, “then it automatically becomes natural.”
Goaded by the Pollyanna-ish attitude of his fellow panelists, Mailer pushed further, warning that NASA’s activities bordered on sacrilege. “We are trying to become gods,” he ranted. “If that is our deepest desire, then we also have to recognize that we may also be evil!”
Next to me, head in his hands, Forcade was muttering darkly, “I am evil… ”
It was then that Mailer advanced his theory of the thanatosphere, a zone beyond Earth’s biosphere where dead souls resided in eternal orbit. All of the rockets and satellites whizzing and humming through space might be disturbing the fragile balance of the thanatosphere, he argued, and man should be very careful about the consequences.
“Right on, man!” said Forcade, the idea rousing him from his torpor. Indeed, it caused a stir in the room. The sci-fi crowd seemed stunned by the notion. Mailer was fully in his role as Aquarius, the skeptical third-person narrator in Of a Fire on The Moon.
We tried to tackle him after the seminar, but a clutch of fans blocked our way. Forcade and I landed in the bar. I ordered bourbon—a double, straight—and a shot of tequila to straighten Tom out. At the next table an elderly white-haired woman was also requesting bourbon. The young guy with her was having a Coca-Cola. She dropped a remark like a perfumed hanky about her opinion that bourbon drinkers rightly ought to stick together, and pretty soon we were all at the same table. The young guy turned out to be Hendrik Hertzberg, of The New Yorker, who was accompanying the elegant lady he introduced to us as Katherine Anne Porter.
She regaled us with tales of running off to Mexico in the 1920s, hanging out with Diego Rivera and smoking marijuana with Hart Crane and Malcolm Cowley in the midst of the Revolución.
“It was in Coyoacan,” she recalled, in the fluted tone of cotton-country Texas, going on to relate something about looking out from a balcony at Zapata’s soldiers parading along the street “with rifles and no shoes.” Round for round, she was drinking us under the table. We slipped her a joint when Hertzberg wasn’t looking. She had cheered us up, the old broad, especially since we’d stuck Hertzberg with the tab. I was ready to head to Mexico and join the Zapatistas. Fired up on cactus juice, Forcade was more determined than ever to find Mailer and warn him about the dire conspiracy surrounding us, or end it all before “they” came to get him.
That night, with the ship anchored off the Florida coast, the amateur astronomers set up their fancy telescopes on the foredeck. Dr. Enzmann and his acolytes gathered on B Deck by a loudspeaker transmitting the countdown from Houston. A malfunction of a launch sequencer kept everyone in a holding pattern for more than two hours as the constellations in the sky rotated toward midnight.
Forcade and I staked out an obscure section of deck, wary of the Filipino crew who, Forcade was convinced, had begun to look at us funny. I was certain everyone was looking at us funny. We hadn’t changed our clothes in a few days.
The lights of Kennedy Space Center blinked five miles distant, the tall shape of the Saturn rocket illuminated by a hundred multimegawatt spotlights. We fired up a fat joint. Suddenly there were Norman and Carol, along with Hugh Downs, his network announcer’s voice a bass note to the high chatter of the gaggle of sci-fi enthusiasts and renegade physicists tailing along. They gathered along the railing, pouring champagne from a bottle.
“Say, you want to pass some of that over here?” Mailer asked us. The joint was passed around and everyone took a toke. When it reached Downs, the NBC star sucked in a lungful and coughed out a plume of smoke—surely something the Today show audience had never seen.
Forcade was about to pounce on Mailer, but then the countdown abruptly came over the loudspeaker: Ten… nine… eight…
The engines ignited in an orange bolus of flame. We pressed against the railing as the rocket lifted off the pad, rising into the sky as if drawn on a string by an unseen hand. Arcing through the heavens, Apollo burned a dragon tail of liquid nitrogen in a flurry of diamond-like sparks, diffracted into a crazy psychedelic light show reflected in the sea surrounding the ship. The rocket now passed directly over our heads. The engines’ thunder was almost unbearable, the decks reverberating beneath our feet like a drumhead. I looked down the line of spectators along the railing, everyone’s face aglow in the receding glare, including Mailer, smiling uncontrollably—the forty-nine year old Aquarius, a bit stoned on our pot, boyishly exultant in the sheer, glorious firecracker fun of the spectacle.
Then it was gone. Reduced to a dim point of light growing dimmer by the second, the rocket carrying the last three men to step foot on the moon was swallowed up in the starry maze above. And when we looked, Aquarius, too, had vanished, the night folding in around us.
Next morning, Tom Buckley, the New York Times reporter, scanned a crowd of sunbathers by the pool and finally locked his eye on us. We had our boots off, but he couldn’t miss the black leather jackets draped on a nearby deckchair. Forcade was coming down off the drugs. I tried to make myself inconspicuous by engaging in conversation with our deckmates, a couple of models. But soon the intrepid journalist was hovering over us. “I hear there are two stowaways on this ship,” he said.
Forcade groaned, cursing and muttering satanically. I agreed to talk, but only on the grounds that Buckley would not file his story with the Times until he was off the ship. I told him everything, and then some, with Forcade piping up to say that we were about to execute a political action against the conspiracy. Buckley wanted more details. My fellow stowaway looked around, squinting like a maniac. “We were thinking about opening the seacocks,” he whispered. “But then we realized, you dig? We don’t have seats in the lifeboats.”
Buckley took down every word, making sure he had the correct spelling of our names. “Where are you guys getting off?” he wanted to know.
First port of call was St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, after which the ship was sailing on to St. Croix. We had no passports, no money, and we confessed we had no idea how the hell we were getting back. Forcade mumbled something about hijacking a boat or stealing a plane. Mailer strolled over and tried to help us sort it out.
“Well, the ship is in port at St. Thomas for a day,” said Buckley. “If your plan doesn’t work, you can always come back on board and sail home.”
Mailer thought it was a bad idea. “Once a philosopher, twice a pervert,” he said, trotting away before Forcade could get a word out.
We assumed Buckley was debarking in St. Thomas. But an hour later we glanced over the railing and there was Buckley, waving to us from a launch heading land-ho. The son of a bitch would be back on the Florida shore in half an hour, filing his story while we were still on the ship.
Forcade was getting weirder by the nautical mile. Before heading for our stateroom later that afternoon, he took off. I searched every deck until I found him in the stern leaning over the railing in the salt spray. “If I jumped overboard now,” he said, staring at the ship’s wake, “how long do you think I’d last in the water?”
Tom didn’t leap just then—not that I would have stopped him. Here we were on this cool ship with all these amazing people, a couple of stowaways still not caught, and I was having a great time interviewing people, taking notes for what would surely be a fantastic cover story for the next issue of the New York Ace. All Tom could do was mope around, hinting to anyone who would listen that his home was in the Thanatosphere. I had to get him off the damn ship before something terrible happened. I locked him in the stateroom where he proceeded to swallow a fistful of ’ludes and pass out. I spent the evening in the bar interviewing a couple of lissome astrology students—or was it astronomy?
“You guys are in deep shit now,” Mailer said to us at the breakfast buffet the next morning. It seems Buckley’s story had hit page one of the Metro section of the New York Times. It identified the two of us as stowaways, misspelling Forcade’s name but quoting him about opening the seacocks and sinking the ship. Sure enough, an announcement came over the PA from the captain about “unauthorized passengers,” and asking everybody to report anyone who looked suspicious. Mailer suggested we find a helpful soul who could hide us for the next day or so, until we got to St. Thomas. He apologized for not joining more fully in our revolutionary act. Carol would probably not go along with a couple of fugitives crashing on their cabin floor.
Meanwhile, Forcade had lapsed into a semicatatonic state, mumbling to himself, eyes narrowed to little slits, jaws working silently, and his hands clenching into tight fists until his fingers turned white.
“Is he okay?” Mailer asked.
“Just a little stoned,” I said.
At that moment, Forcade blurted out, “There’s a conspiracy…you have to be careful, you dig?”
“I know,” said Mailer fixing him with a profound gaze. “I know. You be careful, too.”
For the first time in days, Forcade cracked a smile. Mailer knew—or at least he knew the right thing to say. It was an act of kindness that I wanted to repay.
“Say, you want this?” I asked Mailer. He looked at the bag of pot I’d confiscated from Forcade, and declined.
“Once a philosopher… ”
I ended up giving the dope to the two extremely grateful models.
After a couple of grueling days playing hide-and-seek with the Filipino crew, we debarked without incident in St. Thomas, strolling nonchalantly down the gangplank to shore, where Forcade and I were the only ones on the tropical island wearing black leather jackets and boots. Hitching a ride out of the St. Thomas airport on a cargo plane carrying a load of mangoes to Puerto Rico flown by a rum-baked Cuban, we eventually found our way back to Manhattan.
The war ended, Nixon fell. With no apocalypse to report or finances to pay the printer, there was no next issue of the New York Ace. By invitation, I attended Mailer’s fiftieth birthday party at the Four Seasons, where his incoherent announcement of a “People’s CIA” and attempt to box Joe “Buzz” Shaw, a former welterweight champion, made it clear that our mission to protect the novelist from diabolical forces had failed. I went on to help Forcade with his new project, founding a magazine that combined horticulture with the counter-culture called High Times. Tom succumbed to his own demons in 1978 when he took a pearl-handled .22 and, while his wife was in the kitchen fixing dinner, put a bullet through his head.
When it happened, I thought back to our adventure on the high seas, and of Mailer’s Aquarius, who “was sick in that miasmal and not quite discoverable region between the liver and the soul.”
Now they’re both floating around up there in the thanatosphere, circling a steadily deteriorating planet with humming satellites and rockets whizzing by all the time from every direction.
You be careful, too, you dig?