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This is the story of Rhysling, the Blind Singer of the Spaceways — but not the official version. You sang his words in school:
The language does not matter — it was certainly an Earth tongue. No one has ever translated Green Hills into the lisping Venerean speech; no Martian ever croaked and whispered it in the dry corridors. This is ours. We of Earth have exported everything from Hollywood crawlies to synthetic radioactives, but this belongs solely to Terra, and to her sons and daughters wherever they may be.
We have all heard stories of Rhysling. You may even be one of the many who have sought degrees by scholarly evaluations of his published works — Songs of the Spaceways; The Grand Canal, and other Poems; High and Far; and Up Ship!
Nevertheless, although you have sung his songs and read his verses, in school and out, your whole life, it is at least an even-money bet — unless you are a spaceman yourself — that you have never even heard of most of Rhysling's unpublished songs, such items as Since the Pusher Met My Cousin; That Red-Headed Venusberg Gal; Keep Your Pants On, Skipper; or A Space Suit Built for Two. Nor can we quote them in a family magazine.
Rhysling's reputation was protected by a careful literary executor and by the happy chance that he was never interviewed. Songs of the Spaceways appeared the week he died; when it became a best seller, the publicity stories about him were pieced together from what people remembered about him plus the highly colored handouts from his publishers.
The resulting traditional picture of Rhysling is about as authentic as George Washington's hatchet or King Alfred's cakes.
In truth, you would not have wanted him in your parlor; he was not socially acceptable. He had a permanent case of sun itch, which he scratched continually, adding nothing to his negligible beauty.
Van der Voort's portrait of him for the Harriman Centennial edition of his works shows a figure of high tragedy, a solemn mouth, sightless eyes concealed by black silk bandage. He was never solemn! His mouth was always open, singing, grinning, drinking or eating. The bandage was any rag, usually dirty. After he lost his sight he became less and less neat about his person.
"Noisy" Rhysling was a jetman, second class, with eyes as good as yours, when he signed on for a loop trip to the Jovian asteroids in the R. S. Goshawk. The crew signed releases for everything in those days; a Lloyd's associate would have laughed in your face at the notion of insuring a spaceman. The Space Precautionary Act had never been heard of, and the company was responsible only for wages, if and when. Half the ships that went farther than Luna City never came back. Spacemen did not care; by preference they signed for shares, and any one of them would have bet you that he could jump from the two hundredth floor of Harriman Tower and ground safely, if you offered him three to two and allowed him rubber heels for the landing.
Jetmen were the most carefree of the lot and the meanest. Compared with them, the masters, the radarmen, and the astrogators (there were no supers or stewards in those days) were gentle vegetarians. Jetmen knew too much. The others trusted the skill of the captain to get them down safely; jetmen knew that skill was useless against the blind and fitful devils chained inside their rocket motors.
The Goshawk was the first of Harriman's ships to be converted from chemical fuel to atomic power piles — or rather the first that did not blow up. Rhysling knew her well; she was an old tub that had plied the Luna City run, Supra-New York space station to Leyport and back, before she was converted for deep space. He had worked the Luna, run in her and had been along on the first deep-space trip, to Drywater, on Mars — and back, to everyone's surprise.
He should have made chief engineer by the time he signed for the Jovian loop trip, but, after the Drywater pioneer trip, he had been fired, blacklisted, and grounded at Luna City for having spent his time writing a chorus and several verses at a time when he should have been watching his gauges. The song was the infamous 'The Skipper is a Father to His Crew', with the uproariously unprintable final couplet.
The black list did not bother him. He won an accordion from a Chinese barkeep in Luna City by cheating at one-thumb and thereafter kept going by singing to miners for drinks and tips until the rapid attrition in spacemen caused the company agent there to give him another chance. He kept his nose clean on the Luna run for a year or two, got back into deep space, helped give Venusberg its original ripe reputation, strolled the banks of the Grand Canal when a second colony was established at the ancient Martian capital, and froze his toes and ears on the second trip to Titan.
Things moved fast in those days. Once the power-pile drive was accepted, the number of ships that put out from the Luna-Terra system was limited only by the availability of crews. Jetmen were scarce; the shielding was cut to a minimum to save weight, and few married men cared to risk possible exposure to radioactivity. Rhysling did not want to be a father, so jobs were always open to him during the golden days of the claiming boom. He crossed and recrossed the system, singing the doggerel that boiled up in his head and chording it out on his accordion.
The master of the Goshawk knew him; Captain Hicks had been astrogator on Rhysling's first trip in her. "Welcome home, Noisy," Hicks had greeted him. "Are you sober, or shall I sign the book for you?"
"You can't get drunk on the bugjuice they sell here, skipper." He signed and went below, lugging his accordion.
Ten minutes later he was back. "Captain," he stated darkly, "that Number Two jet ain't fit. The cadmium dampers are warped."
"Why tell me? Tell the chief."
"I did, but he says they will do. He's wrong."
The captain gestured at the book. "Scratch out your name and scram. We raise ship in thirty minutes."
Rhysling looked at him, shrugged, and went below again.
It is a long climb to the Jovian planetoids; a Hawk-class clunker had to blast for three watches before going into free flight. Rhysling had the second watch. Damping was done by hand then, with a multiplying vernier and a danger gauge. When the gauge showed red, he tried to correct it — no luck.
Jetmen don't wait; that's why they are jetmen. He slapped the emergency discover and fished at the hot stuff with the longs. The lights went out, he went right ahead. A jetman has to know his power room the way your tongue knows the inside of your mouth.
He sneaked a quick look over the top of the lead baffle when the lights went out. The blue radioactive glow did not help him any; he jerked his head back and went on fishing by touch.
When he was done he called over the tube, "Number Two jet out. And for gosh sake get me some light down here!"
There was light — the emergency circuit — but not for him. The blue radioactive glow was the last thing his optic nerve ever responded to.
1) From The Grand Canal, by permission of Lux Transcriptions, Ltd., London and Luna City.
The capital was well into its boom; the processing plants lined the Grand Canal on both sides and roiled the ancient waters with the filth of the runoff. This was before the Tri-Planet Treaty forbade disturbing cultural relics for commerce; half the slender, fairy-like towers had been torn down, and others were disfigured to adapt them as pressurized buildings for earthmen.
Now Rhysling had never seen any of these changes and no
one described them to him; when he "saw" Marsopolis again,
he visualized it as it had been before it was rationalized for
trade. His memory was good. He stood on the riparian esplanade where the ancient great of Mars had taken their ease,
and saw its beauty spreading out before his blinded eyes — ice-blue plain of water unmoved by tide, untouched by breeze,
The subtle change in his orientation which enabled him to see beauty at Marsopolis when beauty was not, now began to affect his whole life. All women became beautiful to him. He knew them by their voices and fitted their appearances to the sounds. It is a mean spirit indeed who will speak to a blind man other than in gentle friendliness; scolds who had given their husbands no peace sweetened their voices to Rhysling.
It populated his world with beautiful women and gracious men. Dark Star Passing, Berenice's Hair, Death Song of a Wood's Colt, and his other love songs of the wanderers, the womenless men of space, were the direct result of the fact that his conceptions were unsullied by tawdry truths. It mellowed his approach, changed his doggerel to verse, and sometimes even to poetry.
He had plenty of time to think now, time to get all the lovely words just so, and to worry a verse until it sang true in his head. The monotonous beat of Jet Song —
At Venusberg he sang his new songs and some of the old, in the bars. Someone would start a hat around for him; it would come back with a minstrel's usual take doubled or tripled in recognition of the gallant spirit behind the bandaged eyes.
It was an easy life. Any space port was his home and any ship his private carriage. No skipper cared to refuse to lift the extra mass of blind Rhysling and his squeeze box; he shuttled from Venusberg to Leyport to Drywater to New Shanghai, or back again, as the whim took him.
He never went closer to Earth than Supra-New York Space Station. Even when signing the contract for Songs of the Spaceways he made his mark in a cabin-class liner somewhere between Luna City and Ganymede. Horowitz, the original publisher, was aboard for a second honeymoon and heard Rhysling sing at a ship's party. Horowitz knew a good thing for the publishing trade when he heard it; the entire contents of Songs were sung directly into the tape in the communications room of that ship before he let Rhysling out of his sight. The next three volumes were squeezed out of Rhysling at Venusberg, where Horowitz had sent an agent to keep him liquored up until he had sung all he could remember.
Up Ship! is not certainly authentic Rhysling throughout. Much of it is Rhysling's, no doubt, and Jet Song is unquestionably his, but most of the verses were collected after his death, from people who had known him during his wanderings.
The Green Hills of Earth grew through twenty years. The earliest form we know about was composed before Rhysling was blinded, during a drinking bout with some of the indentured men on Venus. The verses were concerned mostly with the things the labor clients intended to do back on Earth if and when they ever managed to pay their bounties and thereby be allowed to go home. Some of the stanzas were vulgar, some were not, but the chorus was recognizably that of Green Hills.
We know exactly where the final form of Green Hills came from, and when.
There was a ship in at Venus Ellis Isle which was scheduled for the direct jump from there to Great Lakes, Illinois. She was the old Falcon, youngest of the Hawk class and the first ship to apply the Harriman Trust's new policy of extrafare express service between Earth cities and any colony with scheduled stops.
Rhysling decided to ride her back to Earth. Perhaps his own song had got under his skin — or perhaps he just hankered to see his native Ozarks one more time.
The company no longer permitted deadheads. Rhysling knew this, but it never occurred to him that the ruling might apply to him. He was getting old, for a spaceman, and just a little matter-of-fact about his privileges. Not senile — he simply knew that he was one of the landmarks in space, along with Halley's Comet, the Rings, and Brewster's Ridge. He walked in the crew's port, went below, and made himself at home in the first empty acceleration couch.
The captain found him there while making a last-minute tour of his ship. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. "Dragging it back to Earth, captain." Rhysling needed no eyes to see a skipper's four stripes.
"You can't drag in this ship: you know the rules. Shake a leg and get out of here. We raise ship at once." The captain was young; he had come up after Rhysling's active time, but Rhysling knew the type — five years at Harriman Hall with only cadet practice trips instead of solid, deep-space experience. The two men did not touch in background or spirit; space was changing.
"Now, captain, you wouldn't begrudge an old man a trip home."
The officer hesitated — several of the crew had stopped to listen. "I can't do it. 'Space Precautionary Act, Clause Six: No one shall enter space save as a licensed member of a crew of a chartered vessel, or as a paying passenger of such a vessel under such regulations as may be issued pursuant to this act.' Up you get and out you go."
Rhysling lolled back, his hands under his head. "If I've got to go, I'm damned if I'll walk. Carry me."
The captain bit his lip and said, "Master-at-arms! Have this man removed."
The ship's policeman fixed his eyes on the overhead struts. "Can't rightly do it, captain. I've sprained my shoulder." The other crew members, present a moment before, had faded into the bulkhead paint.
"Well, get a working party!"
"Aye aye, sir." He, too, went away.
Rhysling spoke again. "Now look, skipper — let's not have any hard feelings about this. You've got an out to carry me if you want to — the 'distressed-spaceman' clause."
"Distressed spaceman, my eye! You're no distressed spaceman; you're a space lawyer. I know who you are; you've been bumming around the system for fifteen years. Well, you won't do it in my ship. That clause was intended to succor men who had missed their ships, not to let a man drag free all over space."
"Well, now, captain, can you properly say I haven't missed my ship? I've never been back home since my last trip as a signed-on crew member. The law says I can have a trip back."
"But that was years ago. You've used up your chance."
"Have I, now? The clause doesn't say a word about how soon a man has to take his trip back; it just says he's got it coming to him. Go look it up, skipper. If I'm wrong, I'll not only walk out on my two legs, I'll beg your humble pardon in front of your crew. Go on — look it up. Be a sport."
Rhysling could feel the man's glare, but he turned and stomped out of the compartment. Rhysling knew that he had used his blindness to place the captain in an impossible position, but this did not embarrass Rhysling — he rather enjoyed it.
Ten minutes later the siren sounded, he heard the orders on the bull horn for Up-Stations. When the soft sighing of the locks and the slight pressure change in his ears let him know that take-off was imminent, he got up and shuffled down to the power room, as he wanted to be near the jets when they blasted off. He needed no one to guide him in any ship of the Hawk class.
Trouble started during the first watch. Rhysling had been
lounging in the inspector's chair, fiddling with the keys of his
accordion and trying out a new version of Green Hills,
It would not come out right. He tried again.
That was better, he thought. "How do you like that, Archie?" he asked over the muted roar.
"Pretty good. Give out with the whole thing." Archie Macdougal, chief jetman, was an old friend, both spaceside and in bars; he had been an apprentice under Rhysling many years and millions of miles back.
Rhysling obliged, then said,
"You youngsters have got it soft. Everything automatic. When I was twisting her tail you had to stay awake."
"You still have to stay awake.
They fell to talking shop, and Macdougal showed him the new direct-reponse damping rig which had replaced the manual vernier control which Rhysling had used. Rhysling felt out the controls and asked questions until he was familiar with the new installation. It was his conceit that he was still a jetman and that his present occupation as a troubadour was simply an expedient during one of the fusses with the company that any man could get into.
I see you still have the old hand-damping plates installed, he remarked, his agile fingers flitting over the equipment.
"All except the links. I unshipped them because they obscure the dials."
"You ought to have them shipped. You might need them."
"Oh, I don't know. I think "
Rhysling never did find out what Macdougal thought, for it was at that moment the trouble tore loose. Macdougal caught it square, a blast of radioactivity that burned him down where he stood.
Rhysling sensed what had happened. Automatic reflexes of old habit came out. He slapped the discover and rang the alarm to the control room simultaneously. Then he remembered the unshipped links. He had to grope until he found them, while trying to keep as low as he could to get maximum benefit from the baffles. Nothing but the links bothered him as to location. The place was as light to him as any place could be; he knew every spot, every control, the way he knew the keys of his accordion.
Power room! Power room! What's the alarm?
"Stay out!" Rhysling shouted. "The place is 'hot'".
He could feel it on his face and in his bones, like desert sunshine.
The links he got into place, after cursing someone, anyone, for having failed to rack the wrench he needed. Then he commenced trying to reduce the trouble by hand. It was a long job and ticklish. Presently he decided that the jet would have to be spilled, pile and all.
First he reported. "Control!"
"Control aye aye!"
"Spilling Jet Three — emergency."
"Is this Macdougal?"
"Macdougal is dead. This is Rhysling, on watch. Stand by to record."
There was no answer; dumfounded the skipper may have been, but he could not interfere in a power-room emergency. He had the ship to consider, and the passengers and crew. The doors had to stay closed.
The captain must have been still more surprised at what
Rhysling sent for record. It was:
Rhysling went on cataloguing the Solar System as he
worked, "harsh bright soil of Luna," "Saturn's rainbow
rings," "the frozen night of Titan," all the while opening and
spilling the jet and fishing it clean. He finished with an alternate chorus:
This is the story of "Noisy" Rhysling, the blind space-going songwriter whose poetic skills rival Rudyard Kipling's. Heinlein (himself a medically retired U.S. naval officer) spins a yarn about a radiation-blinded spaceship engineer crisscrossing the solar system writing and singing songs. The story takes the form of a nonfiction magazine article.
Heinlein revealed in the liner notes to the Leonard Nimoy album 'The Green Hills of Earth' that he partially based Rhysling's unique abilities on a blind machinist he worked with at the Philadelphia Naval Yards during World War II. He never identified him beyond the name "Tony". Heinlein was amazed that Tony had a perfect safety record and a production record equal to sighted machinists, and could identify all his co-workers solely on the sound of their footsteps and other aural clues, without need of them speaking to him first. Tony also occasionally played the accordion and sang for the assembled shop.
In real-life space travel, references to Rhysling and "the green hills of Earth" were made by Apollo 15 astronauts. They named a crater near their landing site "Rhysling." This name has since been adopted officially. Capcom Joe Allen on Earth summoned David Scott and Jim Irwin, as their third moonwalk was ending, with the words "As the space poet Rhysling would say, we're ready for you to 'come back again to the homes of men on the cool green hills of Earth'."
The Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) award for speculative fiction poetry is called the Rhysling Award.
Polémico pelas suas posturas demagógicas nos campos da política, da emancipação feminina e da liberdade sexual, Heinlein foi um autor que quebrou barreiras num género que então era considerado como habitáculo de escritores menores ou incapazes - um pouco à semelhança do que ainda sucede um pouco actualmente no nosso meio literário.
A ele deveu-se a publicação do conto «The Green Hills of Earth» no jornal Saturday Evening Post em 1947, uma conquista importante para a época (de acordo com as palavras de Isaac Asimov) por representar o surgimento de uma história assumidamente de FC (sobre Rhysling, astronauta cego pela radiação e também poeta, e ao atravessar o sistema solar, incapaz de apreciar a beleza do espaço, compõe um poema em que relembra as verdes colinas da Terra, para onde deseja retornar no fim da vida).
Esta história não se encontra publicada em Portugal, bem como grande parte da sua ficção curta.