lackie and Starlet were stuck with a dummy.
They did it twice in March, first Blackie and then Starlet, before the big event, which was all about the man called Yuri. That happened in April.
At least Blackie and Starlet had good company, dozens of mice, some lizards, and who knows how many guinea pigs. I always wondered if the lizards had names.
I tried imagining the dummy. How Blackie and Starlet behaved beside it.
Did their bobbing tongues hang out?
Did they fetch anything?
How often did they bark?
Were they scared?
Even the dummy had a name, Ivan, the Russian “everyman” John, as in John Doe. John, they said, had wax lips and special marbles for eyes. He even had a sign with the word “dummy” in Russian (maket) in case someone thought that maybe he wasn’t, even though he had no blood and couldn’t speak.
First time around the Russians stuffed John with a few lizards and mice and rigged him with a tape recorder that played hymns. To make absolutely sure no one took him for a real John. Then again, what real John is filled with rodents and hums? Poor Blackie.
Next time John got more hymns and the tape was made to recite a cabbage soup recipe. They stuck guinea pigs his chest. Poor John. Poor Starlet.
The Russians later explained that they had no choice but to make John seem silly. What if he landed in Nebraska and people thought he was an alien or a Communist scarecrow? This might have given Nebraska a collective coronary, which in 1961 would have done cornhuskers no particular good.
It seemed to me that Blackie and Starlet would have been enough to reassure earthlings, whether in Nebraska or Polynesia, that John was tame. What alien would wreak havoc in the presence of a dog, even if he did have guinea pigs coming out of his chest? But the Russians were just being careful. Apparently they weren’t worried about giving up the cabbage soup recipe.
I was afraid of the dark in those days. Beasts lurked behind the bookshelf. Some had eyes that glowed in the dark. They wanted to take me to a place where my brain would be removed and eaten by girls.
Blackie and Starlet helped reassure me. If they were brave enough to travel into space with a dummy named John, I should at least make it through the night without baby whaling (what my father called it). I wondered how I could sound like a whale but let it go. Knowing between whale and wail would come later.
Blackie went up on March 9. The Russians worried because of Little Bee and Little Fly, who had vaporized on reentry six months before. I tried not to think of them.
Maybe John and his lizards took better care of Blackie or the Russians were just more watchful, but Blackie came home safely, barking and licking. Which proved that on a good day space only enhanced the best dog qualities.
Starlet went up two weeks later, on March 26, and somehow managed not to whine (or whale) despite John’s cabbage soup recitations. I wondered if Starlet befriended any of the mice or pigs. I thought about the funny censors, which were wrapped around Starlet’s neck and paws. I pondered what it was like to be a dog in space in a space the size of a washing machine. How many bones would it take to apologize for that inconvenience?
Of course no one was really focused on Black and Starlet, or if they were it didn’t last. That’s because the Russians got tired of John and sent up real man Yuri.
That was in April 1961. I remember the big black headlines and the serious faces of the newscasters, as if they’d been punished. I remember thinking how things had been so much simpler with Blackie and Starlet, even with John. While Blackie and Starlet barked, and John had only his recipe, Yuri talked, and others talked for him, a yammer that only got bigger and louder, until we also sent a man up, which is when the real shouting began.
Soon, a Russian clenched his fist (or so I was told) and an American president got shot (a very bad thing). After which came the demand that I grow up. Including from a girl (my mother). Which I admittedly did only with great reluctance, sensing that it would be a long, long time before I could whale again. And being right.