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"The John Glenn Story" by Thomas Thonson

Her name was Albert II. But that wasn’t her real name; that’s what the NASA engineers called her, those doughy-faced men with pocket protectors, soft hands, and squinty eyes. Her real name was a series of squeals and hoots and chattering, but she had nicknames we can all relate to: Loopy Lucy was given to her by her mom because of her nimble maneuvers she displayed at a very young age in the rain forest canopy of Peru. She was fearless and could pull off backflips 200 feet in the air, leaping from a sturdy Kapoke tree branch to an Ipe, with flaming pink blooms. Her brothers also called her Hannah the High Flyer, which was ironic given the fact that she became the ultimate high flyer many years later. A pretty thing and fearless too––an explorer that went high and low, and traveled far just because the world was mapped out before her, an endless green canopy, lushly abundant, with everything a squirrel monkey would need. Her brothers were more cautious than she, and often stayed close to home, frightened by a rainstorm, or a creeping boa constrictor, slithering upwards, or the hawks high above, their eyes looking for movement, any kind of movement, that might emerge from the dense green below. But Albert II loved the emergent crowns, those towering lookout towers that gave her a view of the forest in its entirety. Up she would go until the blue sky and sunlight lit up her fur and sparked in her eyes. Like all squirrel monkeys, she had a black muzzle, black-rimmed, round eyes, elfin ears, a cap of dark fur that outlined her face with perfect symmetry, and orange-yellow fur across her back that glistened and glowed in the light. What made her especially adorable was her tufts of silken bright orange hair behind her ears, a bit of genetic artistry, and a dimorphic anomaly that could be attributed to a great uncle. He was a notorious lady killer and adventurer that was sadly gobbled up by a Jaguar in his prime. It seems that the orange ear tufts weren’t the only thing Albert II inherited.

At a still young age, she made an ill-advised trip to the forest floor––something she had been warned about repeatedly by her mother and sternly lectured to by her father. She couldn’t help it; a glimmer of something caught her eye––a tantalizing flicker of light in the gloom that seemed to turn the world upside down momentarily. Had a piece of the sky fallen below? Down she went, full of youthful curiosity and her uncle’s adventurous spirit, only to discover that it was a small mirror, held in the hand of a man. She was swiftly captured by some trappers, who promptly sold her to a consortium of wildlife traffickers working out of Lima.

Her star-like charisma and looks saved her from the medical labs, and she was sold off as a pet, ending up briefly as an “animal billboard” in a glass cage outside a motel in Winslow, Arizona. The owner thought that a cute little monkey beneath the sign in the entryway would be a draw for the tourist cruising by on Route 66. Albert II’s high-flying arboreal paradise was over. The tufts of hair behind her ears were as colorful as ever, but her black, beady eyes were leaden and dull. She no longer felt the excitement and contentment she used to feel as she swooped and soared through the treetops. She dreamed of the thrill of aerial exploits, but woke up to four glass walls, a food bowl with an obscene brown banana, one leafless tree branch, the buzz of neon lights, and the deathly eyes of bored young children, their fingers tapping on the glass. She became lethargic and could not deliver the kind of antics the motel owner expected of her. Who wants to stare at a depressed monkey in a glass cage? He sold her to an enterprising young man, a scientist on vacation at the time, who happened to be working for NASA. He drove in one late night in a gleaming pale blue 1949 Ford, his family asleep around him, hit the brakes, and stared at Albert II’s glowing glass cage. He had been tasked with developing diagnostic tools to measure the reactions of monkeys shot up into space. Basically, he was making little children’s sized, pee-pot cockpit chairs, that you could strap the little suckers in, poke them with sensors to measure their vitals, plant them in a nose cone and shoot them into space. He had done some research, and because of their small size and ability to withstand extreme humidity and heat (they sweat through their palms and feet), a squirrel monkey might be ideal. He phoned his superiors, got the go-ahead, and bought Albert II on the spot. She was shipped across country to Cape Canaveral, where in 1949 she became the first monkey in space, reaching an altitude of 134 km, well above the 100km “Karman Line” that designated the beginning of space. From her high-flying exploits in the canopy of the Peruvian rainforest to the pinnacle of space flight, Albert II’s––aka Loopy Lucy, and Hannah the High Flyer––achievements were remarkable.

She did not receive a ticker-tape parade in New York City, or a NASA Distinguished Medal, or the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. She did not receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, nor was she elected to the United States Senate. Instead, she was torn to bits when the parachute didn’t open on reentry and her nose cone slammed into to the dark grey waters of the Atlantic Ocean 1700 miles south of Cape Canaveral. But luckily for John Glenn, she paved the way for his trip. The sheer velocity and force of the V-2 rocket on take-off did not kill her, even as her heartbeat rocketed to triple the normal rate. In that dark nose cone, bathed in the cold light of stars, the distant blue-green planet like a treetop in the rain forest, her breathing remained steady. The heat shield protected her from radiation and searing temperatures. Weightlessness showed no ill effects. She wasn’t the first to die or the last; there was an Albert I before her and Albert III and IV after, and many more. All of them died in some terrible way until another squirrel monkey named Mrs. Baker made it back in one piece in 1959.

She did not experience the take-off or her time in space; she was anesthetized. But she did experience the terror of being strapped into the housing before the flight, the implanted electrodes, the straightjacket of a flight suit. Only one arm was left free, the other pinned to her side. Her long, slender fingers––finely articulated, strong as a steel cord, supple as a butterfly wing––reached for an imaginary tree branch, her head locked into place, her delicately shaped ears and orange tufts buried beneath a cowl of stiff padding. She was jabbed with a needle and right before she drifted off to sleep she would never awake from, she remembered her home in the trees, her brothers around her, her arm reaching for a branch and the next one, the air beneath her, the leaves brushing past her, the sweet fecund smell of the forest, danger in the darkness below, light and blue goodness above, the emergent treetops beckoning and beckoning and beckoning…

Thomas Thonson's short stories have been published in Madcap Review, Spotlong Review, and Open Ceilings among others.

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