I met my BFF in 8th grade. We moved to the house where my folks still live in the middle of my 7th grade year. I finished out the school year in the old neighborhood junior high and started 8th grade in the new neighborhood’s junior high. My BFF lived in the same block I did but on the next street over. I’d grown up here (Texas), her family had recently moved here from Des Plaines, Illinois (just north of Chicago). We were in the same grade at school. I was 7 months older and half a head shorter. She thought I talked funny, I thought she talked funny, but we quickly became fast friends. We never spent much time at each other’s houses, but we spent a fair amount of time talking on the phone, and a lot of time walking around the neighborhood and talking.
As we entered our high school years, one of the things we talked about on our endless walks was Mars. I was already thinking about and trying to write “science fiction” and had had a story idea about a Martian colonist finding a round rock that when it came in contact with water, grew out a body and became a Martian, a rather simple, unsophisticated, somewhat intelligent creature who played a flute. The dried leafless stalks of a local weed, the silverleaf nightshade, with its yellow-orange berries, became transmuted by imagination into Martian plants. I can never look at one without remembering that story.
The next block over from our residential block was a large commercial tract of land that was four streets* wide and a block long. All the previous structures had been razed, a long, narrow playa lake (part of the city’s system of storm drain runoff catchments) had been dug from side to side three-fourths of the way back from the main street front, and the dirt from it spread over the rest of the lot and graded smooth in preparation for the building of a large K-Mart. There was almost two years’ delay between the preparation of the site and the building of the K-Mart and, during that time, there was this entire block of table-top level, bare dirt. The soil had a distinctive reddish cast, and because of the story, it became “Mars.” She and I “walked on Mars” a lot during that time.
At some point during that period, I got a pair of what were called “desert boots.” I put a lot of the mileage on those desert boots walking on Mars. Jeans, desert boots and some kind of cotton top — it was just before T shirts became mainstream — was the after school uniform of the day. I loved those desert boots. You wore them with socks and they were deliciously comfortable. That was back in the days when girls never wore slacks to school unless the weather was really bad and there was snow on the ground — which was not all that often. (Where I live is at the same latitude as Casablanca, Morocco, so that should tell you what the climate is like.) It didn’t become acceptable for girls to wear slacks to school until after I graduated from university in the mid 1970’s. From first grade til I was a sophomore in University, I had to wear dresses or skirts, and low heeled shoes (“flats”) to school, which I hated. I am definitely a jeans and T shirt girl. (I was so glad when hippies happened and I could wear jeans and tees all the time!)
I loved everything about those desert boots — the wide flange of sole that stuck out around the uppers, the sueded sandy-brown leather, the thick rubber soles, how perfectly comfortable they were. Sitting up on something high enough that my feet couldn’t reach the ground, sliding off and landing flat-footed on those shoes. Those were the shoes I wore when I walked on Mars.
She and I were talking about that the other day, about walking on Mars, about desert boots and how much we loved them, and how delighted and not very surprised we were to see the photographs of Mars taken by the Viking landers in the late 1970’s, and how eerily they looked like the bald, burnt sienna dirt of that vacant lot. I still remember those two page spreads of Viking’s color photographs of Mars in the National Geographic and Life Magazine.
For me, the images from the Martian rovers Spirit (2003-2010), Opportunity (2004 and still up and running after 8 years on Mars!), and now Curiosity, show me a landscape that is strangely familiar. It’s a place I knew in a previous century, where my BFF and I walked and talked of inner space and the vast realms of the imagination.
They eventually built the K-Mart, and a little strip mall beside it that had a 4-plex cinema on the other end. My folks knew the people who owned the 4-plex (who from time to time would bring them a big plastic bag full of left-over popcorn from the popcorn machine at the concession stand). The K-Mart and strip mall only took up the front half of the lot. The playa lake was behind and parallel to the buildings and the city built a little park on the other side of the lake, between the lake and the street that separated our block from it. About 8 or 9 years later, K-Mart decided to build a Super Center somewhere else and sold their building to “the birthday cake church.” (We called it that because they hold worship services in a large round auditorium with a conical, flat-topped roof that has two concentric circles of lights on it, one around the eaves, and one halfway up, which at night reminded us of lit candles.) They turned the old K-Mart building into a Christian high school. The church eventually bought up the whole strip mall and added a junior high, a “teen club” and, just this year, an elementary school. Of course, the kids who attend it have no idea their school was built on Mars.